Saturday 25 February 2012


(Oren Moverman, 2011)

By this stage plenty of films have attempted to adapt the work of James Ellroy. And they get various aspects right: the plotting may be impossible to replicate fully in all its insane detailed density, but movies get close when they're willing to trust in epic length and huge casts. His world: a brash, widescreen pulp America, filled with sleaze and amorality, is easier to recreate and seen in all sorts of American genre entertainment. His characters - those unforgettable bad White men, doing violent things in the name of the law - are archetypes, and though nobody does them quite as well as Ellroy, they too are not uncommon in crime movies and thrillers, where rendered badly they register only as cliches.
What it is obviously impossible for any film to really capture is Ellroy's prose. His mature style is simultaneously both extraordinarily pared-down and hyper-inflated, a jazz-like series of short sentences and phrases that verge on self-parody while remaining utterly evocative, often feverish and absolutely distinctive.
Rampart - written by Ellroy himself, together with director Moverman - actually makes a decent fist of finding a filmic style to match Ellroy's writing. Moverman shoots and cuts this story of a corrupt LAPD Patrolman sliding ever closer to his own destruction with a fluid, sensual poetry. The colours alternately seem washed out and over-exposed; nicely reflecting the moodswings undergone by Woody Harrelson's lead, and there are elliptical moments and enough material devoted purely to mood and effect that the film has a strongly-felt identity of its own; this is feverish, like Ellroy, caught up in its own downhill slide, spasmodically violent, very macho in a damaged, inwardly vulnerable way, and strangely, lushly beautiful.
The cast are of a similarly high standard. In what amounts to an arty character-study, Harrelson is thrilling; funny, frightening, falling apart, he lets us see this intelligent man realise that he can't stop himself, showing us how trapped he is by his own personality and how it's too late to drop the act. He is backed by the classy likes of Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche and Ice Cube, but only Robin Wright gets enough screen time to really challenge Harrelson's dominance of the film.
The narrative is where Rampart suffers; it substitutes a long slow slog downward for a plot, making it feel overlong and tonally samey. Luckily, the acting and direction just about compensate. As The Messenger, their first collaboration, suggested Moverman and Harrelson make a fine director-actor team, and long may they work together.

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