In “Rampart,” which opens here Friday, Woody Harrelson plays a very bad cop — a man whose badge is an all-access pass to bigotry, manipulation and lawbreaking, whose perverse sense of entitlement extends to his home life, as well. (The wholly fictional film takes place in the shadow of the real-life Rampart scandal, in which dozens of Los Angeles police officers were accused of crimes in the late 1990s.)
Given the actor’s well-known opposition to America’s law-and-order status quo (from wars overseas to, as he puts it, “The War on Non-Corporate Drugs”), the film might look on paper like an unsubtle insult to law enforcers in general. But both Harrelson and the film’s director, Oren Moverman, disavow that notion, insisting that the project has made them more sympathetic, not less, to those policing our streets.
Both men say their personal experiences with police officers have been largely trouble-free. Harrelson admits he’s had “bad experiences with cops” — it’s hard to be an openly pot-smoking, antiwar, environmental activist without occasional encounters— but claims he’s been “really lucky” on the whole. “Obviously it helps that they might know me,” he says, and “are going to show me their best side sometimes.”
As for Moverman — a large, bald man whose tendency to wear a military-style jacket and boots makes him look fairly imposing — he can easily understand how police feel around civilians. “I’ve often been mistaken for a cop,” he says. “People talk to me and think I’m undercover or off-duty.”
Both men spent time with officers to prepare for the film, and both report being surprised by some encounters. Harrelson befriended two officers in particular, saying, “I’ve never gotten so close to cops, where you could just punch them on the arm and [joke] around with them, you know?”
That intimacy made it easier to discuss the movie’s dark themes. Having witnessed the job’s problems and temptations, Harrelson says the officers “had great insight into it” — not that Harrelson thinks they would be charitable toward a bad police officer in real life. “I think they see how it can happen, but I think they judge them quite severely,” he says. “They don’t have much time for bad cops.”
Moverman, since making the film, has heard from officers with more intimate knowledge of the job’s dark side. He recalls getting an e-mail from a man who was fired after being implicated in the Rampart scandal, “who said, ‘I was [Harrelson’s character] Dave Brown. I know I was Dave Brown. But I have reasons.’ He was talking about an injury he sustained, paranoia, behavior he fell into. It was very moving.
“It brought up a very interesting thing for me,” Moverman continues. “Our troops go to war, and we subscribe to ‘We support our troops.’ They come back with PTSD, and we’re open to that, because they’ve done some awful things, maybe, seen some awful things.”
But in America’s cities, “we have soldiers known as cops, policing the streets, doing this work that is basically an occupation in terms of the mentality of it, and they’re suffering,” Moverman says. “The level of PTSD with cops, the way families are torn apart, those things say something. Yet we don’t go around saying, ‘We support our cops.’ Because we interact with them every day, and we fear them on a certain level.”
Though he’d never excuse police brutality, Moverman argues it’s merely “a symptom” of that occupation-like mind-set, of society’s overall “power structure, what’s becoming more of a caste system than a class system:. “Just like any military occupation, yYou put people in that environment, you basically cultivate the mentality of being under siege, and everyone around you is the enemy, you’re going to have atrocities.”
Harrelson, who rarely works with the same director twice, can’t say enough good things about reteaming with Moverman, who directed him in 2009’s “The Messenger.” He’s most impressed by Moverman’s openness to on-the-spot inspiration. “A lot of directors are like, ‘Here’s your mark, say that line there, then pick up that glass.’ There’s no creativity from the actor in that. You’re just an automaton.”
According to Harrelson, Moverman — who doesn’t rehearse scenes, and who tries to keep actors from meeting one another before shooting — is more flexible than other directors who welcome the occasional bit of ad-libbing. Harrelson recalls shooting a scene in which Brown, living in a hotel room after having hit bottom, urges his two young daughters not to give up on him. What was scripted as a one-page scene grew, Harrelson claims, into the equivalent of eight pages during the take. “When they walk out the door, the scene’s [supposed to be] over,” he explains. But Harrelson followed the daughters out, forcing the camera to follow. “Why would I let them go? I wouldn’t.
“All of a sudden there are people moving, getting walkie-talkies, moving wires out of the way. People are jumping out of the way to not be seen on film,” he says with a laugh. “We walked to the elevator, and had that whole uncomfortable scene at the elevator, and then they’re gone.”
That expanded scene proves crucial in establishing a relationship that, for both Harrelson and Moverman, seems more important than any on-screen depiction of outrageous on-the-job misconduct. In the end, this emphasis makes “Rampart” much more the story of a troubled man than a piece of political provocation.
“The biggest surprise of all is that it’s not about ‘Will he keep his job?’ or ‘Will he get killed?’ ” Moverman says. “It’s about what happens once your children say, ‘Okay, we’ve lost hope for you.’ Who else is there? Once you lose your family, who do you have?”
DeFore is a freelance writer.
(108 minutes) is rated R. At West End Cinema.