We all create fantasies to rationalize our behaviors. We imagine that if someone is doing something “worse” than what we’re doing, the universe/god/the law/our friends won’t take notice of our “minor” or “irrelevant” transgressions. To so many people, the ends more often than not justify whatever petty means they seek out to accomplish. And as a utilitarian (to an extent), I can see the glamour of that mode of thinking. Yet, at the end of the day, moral and ethical relativism are a slippery slope. When you judge your own actions only in regard to the supposed moral inequities of others, you don’t have any actual belief system of your own, and you’ll find yourself trying to create excuses for the most ethically reprehensible behavior simply because you can say “at least I’m not doing ‘x'” or some other flimsy excuse. This is heavy philosophical territory, and the best minds of philosophy have been debating it for millennia. Yet, few films have ever tackled such weighty subject matter in any meaningful way (the only example I can come up with is Watchmen) which is why the latest director from Israeli rising star Oren Moverman (2009’s excellent The Messenger) is so refreshing. The harsh and brutal Rampart dresses itself as a character study but achieves the most as a hard-nosed indictment of public corruption and the fictions we create to deal with our own inhumanities alongside having the best leading male performance from 2011 that I’ve seen yet.

Set in 1999, at the height of the Rampart scandal in the LAPD (where over 70 members of the LAPD’s anti-gang division CRASH were charged with gross police misconduct), Woody Harrelson ferociously embodies Dave Brown, a crooked cop who defines the word “misanthrope.” Known as “Date Rape” Dave among his co-workers (because he is rumored to have killed a serial date rapist rather than arrest him), Dave is a misogynistic, womanizing, racist who has ruined his relationship with his two daughters (whose two separate mothers are sisters that Dave married consecutively). He lines his pockets by robbing criminals and gets his jollies by terrorizing newbies in the police department as well as any civilians that look at him the wrong way. When Brown is video taped viciously assaulting a man who crashed his car into Brown’s (and then tried to run away), his world comes crashing down around him. Amid investigations into his less than spotless past, the ultimate disintegration of his personal life, and a destructive sexual relationship with a defense attorney (Forrest Gump‘s Robin Wright), Dave’s life, which had always teetered on the edge, finally finds itself sliding towards oblivion.

This film has proven to be slightly divisive among critics and audiences, but I thought it was a philosophical and emotional powerhouse. While the script was razor sharp and the cinematography was so immersive as to make the film almost too painfully intimate (which I would also say The Messenger), this was Woody Harrelson’s movie, and not only would I say this was easily the best performance of Harrelson’s career, it’s also the best male performance of 2011 I’ve seen so far (edging out George Clooney in The Descendants). Feral only begins to scratch the surface of his multi-faceted and deeply layered performance. There’s all sorts of cliche “intense” performance adjectives and phrases I could use to describe his performance in this film. He’s explosive. He’s tightly coiled like a serpent ready to strike. There’s a boiling fury and rage under the surface. Yet, all of these cliche phrases only begin to describe his acting tour-de-force. He mixes all of the traits that made Brando so beloved with a last-minute desperation and a truly feisty intelligence. He’s an absolutely loathsome human being and practically devoid of any redeeming qualities. Yet, Harrelson is so mesmerizing that we find ourselves deeply caring about this horrendous man even if in the back of our minds, we root for his eventual downfall. There’s almost a voyeuristic quality to the best Woody Harrelson performances as you see a man creating such a genuine performance that it’s almost like you’re seeing his soul laid bare. The fact that he was able to accomplish such a similar feat in his wildly different role in The Messenger should show just how underrated a performer Woody Harrelson has become.

It was Woody’s movie but that shouldn’t discount the really wonderful performances from its surprisingly large ensemble cast. Ben Foster (Harrelson’s co-star in The Messenger) is nearly unrecognizable as a local crack head who is both an informant in Dave Brown’s employ as well as a man that Brown can simultaneously pity, help, and torture (all depending on his mood). It was a minor role in the film but Foster was so transformed in the part that it gave me another level of renewed respect for an actor that I had always under-appreciated outside of Six Feet Under and The Messenger. Robin Wright continues her career resurgence as a serious character actress with the pivotal role of the terribly damaged and vulnerable defense attorney that latches on to Dave Brown in a mutually destructive relationship. Sigourney Weaver shines as a crusading cop who has made it her mission to bring Brown down as does Ice Cube as a District Attorney investigating Brown’s always compounding list of offenses. Ned Beatty (who I was convinced was dead for some reason) also steals the screen as a retired dirty cop who points Brown to criminals he can shake down for financial gain. Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche bring some tragic emotional weight as Brown’s wives who live in the same building even though one is divorced from him.

One of my favorite parts of Oren Moverman’s last film (and only other) The Messenger was that the cinematography was so intimate and in-your-face that it lended another layer of visceral experience to the already painful scenes of Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster informing families that their loved ones had died overseas. Using a hand-held camera better than anyone since Michael Mann in Collateral, Moverman utilizes painfully (in a good sense) long takes where we focus on Harrelson’s supremely emotive face long after he’s stopped talking or doing anything other than to look in anger, shock, or pain as he reacts and observes the world around him. He often frames Harrelson’s face in such extreme close-ups that it is impossible to miss any of the subtleties of Harrelson’s face or to miss out on any of the intended messages of the scene. When we move in Dave Brown’s morally ambiguous and constantly shifting world, the camera is shaking. We become disoriented. We find ourselves lost in the moral wasteland that is Dave Brown’s life. Moverman is one of the increasingly rare directors that knows just how much the visuals of a strictly dramatic film like this can push the themes beyond the simple portrayal of the plot. By the end of the film, the cinematography of Rampart will find you so deeply entrenched in the world of Dave Brown that you will need to take a shower to wash his filth off of you.

The film’s script is perhaps the only dent in this otherwise excellent film (which is sad because for the most, the script is also brilliant). I loved how for the first hour or so of the film I had to search for the film’s deeper meaning besides being a character study of a dirty cop. The film sprawled across the urban grime of Los Angeles and I kept formulating new ideas about what I thought the film was about (I was bouncing back and forth about it being an indictment against public corruption [which on one level it certainly is] and a treatise on male aggression, sexuality, and violence [which is also sort of accurate]). However, there’s an important scene halfway through the film where Sigourney Weaver basically spelled out the message of the film (which is the dangers of moral relativism) and from that point forward, there were a handful of other very heavy-handed scenes where characters directly called Dave Brown out on all of the flaws that any intelligent audience member would have picked out without someone saying them out loud. Great writing is about showing not telling, and unfortunately, Rampart had  a couple of scenes where the “telling” began to insult my intelligence just a little bit. These moments led to some of Woody Harrelson’s best performances in the film, but they just felt too forced and it lacked the authenticity that defined the rest of the film. Still, few movies have such a lived-in and real quality that Rampart achieved even with those couple scenes that threatened to weigh it down.

If you couldn’t tell by my plot description or any of the other comments I’ve made about the film, this is a very dark and cynical film. So, if you’re wanting a movie about a man that learns the error of his ways, go watch schlock like Crash. This is a film about a self-destructive man with a moral indefensible code putting the final pieces in place for his ultimate degradation. Still, character studies are among the most effective genre of film when done right (it’s done right here), and when you throw in the important commentary this film has about ethics and public corruption, you have the makings of a truly great film. The movie can get a little too preachy for its own good, and I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending (even if I understand how it’s ambiguity reflects the tone of the film), but they are small prices to pay for one of the most thought-provoking films of 2011. If you like to find yourself pushed by your cinema, Rampart will get right in your face.

Final Score: A-