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Director Oren Moverman adds another entry into the growing sub-genre of over-the-top corrupt cop films which includes the likes of both BAD LIEUTENANT films and TRAINING DAY. Like Denzel Washington in the latter film, Woody Harrelson gives an Oscar worthy performance as a dirty and brutal cop. The key difference is that Washington’s Alonzo Harris has greed as his motivation — Harrelson’s David Brown just likes being bad.
Set in 1999 right before the Rampart division scandal broke in Los Angeles, Brown has a long history of violence on the job. His nickname is Date Rape and not for the reasons you might think. As he is trying to dodge his latest excessive force accusation, he finds himself videotaped beating a suspect in the street. This is the one that DA Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver, ALIEN) has been waiting for — the one to make an example of.
He goes into his comfortable cover up mode, contacting his mentor Hartshorn (Ned Beatty, DELIVERANCE), who has gotten him out of a lot of scraps over the years. But he tells Brown that this one is different. From this point on, his life just spirals more and more out of control. It’s like watching a man in quick sand trying to claw his way out only to have more sand pour down upon him from above. He picks up on Linda Fentress (Robin Wright, THE PRINCESS BRIDE) in a bar — she’s a defense lawyer looking to set him up. He comes off unbelievably racist to internal affairs officer Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube, BOYZ IN THE HOOD). Brown tries to make it better by saying he hates everybody equally.
His private life is just as much a mess. He lives next to both of his ex wives, who happen to be sisters. Barbara (Cynthia Nixon, SEX IN THE CITY) and Catherine (Anne Heche, PSYCHO) seem to be as emotionally bankrupt as Brown. A heart to heart with his daughter Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky, BRUCE ALMIGHTY) only alienates her more. Every time he opens his mouth he just makes things worse for himself.
As I watched the film, I kept thinking back to Nicolas Cage’s performance in BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS and how over the top his performance was. The plot for that film was actually more grounded than this one. Brown is so immoral that all his crimes seem implausible. But Harrelson keeps it all grounded. As absurd as it gets, it all seemed reasonable for Brown, because he doesn’t see himself as the villain. He thinks he’s the Punisher and he patrols the streets of Hades. L.A. can feel that hot at times. He gets in trouble because he can’t help himself. The second he does something awful he instinctively begins reframing it in his mind on how he was the hero of the story.
Like Harvey Keitel’s corrupt lieutenant in BAD LIEUTENANT, Brown looks for redemption. At least that is the latest hero story he has conjured in his mind. The conclusion of this character study is uniquely complex in how it exposes Brown’s motivations and how desperate he has become. Timkins’ reaction is very interesting as well because he sees Brown so clearly.
Harrelson and Moverman have begun a great filmic collaboration, having previously worked together on THE MESSENGER, for which Harrelson received an Oscar nomination. Sometimes an actor and director connect and find the right material for their skills. The script from famed crime writer James Ellroy and Moverman could have been made ridiculous with the wrong lead or overly stylish director. Moverman just turns up the heat and grime to set the mood and lets Harrelson create something special — a thoroughly immortal character who we feel compelled to watch.