Ridding the planet of its bad guys has, apparently, been an honourable occupation since one tribe coveted the assets of another. Various ethnic “cleansing” campaigns have terminated millions whose primary crime was their race, skin colour, religious belief or sexuality. Naturally, these horrific acts happen elsewhere than in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Yet in the late ‘90s, dozens of law-upholding officers of the LAPD’s anti-gang unit (Rampart Division) were exposed (by Rafael Pérez, one of their corrupted number) as violent brutes, thieves and evidence planters. Most were never convicted of anything, some resigned and a few were fired. Yet the City of Los Angeles—so far: some cases are cold or still pending—has shelled out more than $125 million to settle civil lawsuits. How could this happen?
Director and co-writer Oren Moverman (most ably assisted by James Elroy) has crafted an answer that is uncomfortably believable. The incredibly common Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson in top conflicted form: true love in his eyes for his curiously conceived daughters is effectively balanced by a fascinating gun-and-sun ballet of the damned) has no qualms about sending filthy scum to early graves or the emergency room. The Vietnam vet has learned his craft well and truly finds himself in “a glorious solders’ department.”
Brown’s world (already on somewhat shaky ground due to an unsolved date rape murder) goes viral when a vicious beating following a no-injury car crash is caught on tape and relentlessly played on television. Surely his days remaining on instead of being the force were numbered.
But the two-dozen-year veteran has some insider help (Ned Beatty is delightfully greasy and conniving, adding another element of gray to the decidedly not black-and-white mixture of law enforcement players). While his superiors and the District Attorney try to find a way out of the publicity nightmare, Brown keeps badge and gun, going about his judge-jury-and-executioner business with the same reckless abandon as ever.
To balance the intrigues swirling around the undeniable accusations, the artistic trust has created a female-only family—replete with an example of why polygamy should be illegal. The performances of all four—notably Brie Larson as the artistically inclined Helen and Sigourney Weaver as the too-long-suffering matriarch, Joan—stand in ideal contrast to Brown’s downward descent. The more his awful truth is revealed, the further away everything he holds dear irrevocably becomes.
Along that journey he is joined by a wheelchair-bound war buddy (aptly named General Terry is brought to destitute life by Ben Foster), a never ending supply of martinis (olives, of course, in bars), fifths of scotch for the patrol car and a covey of one-night stands to further express his love for the fairer sex whether married or not. Of the latter, Linda (Robin Wright is spot-on, despising the notion of Brown but craving their insatiable carnal appetites) quickly joins the growing list of those who are not what they appear to be (somewhat in the same vein as Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—cross-reference below). Ice Cube is the easily outed minder whose quest for justice takes on a deeply personal tone. Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography masterfully captures the rising tension and artfully teases the screen with a variety of viewpoints that provide some real surprises.
Yet when—purposely—most is said and done, it’s Harrelson’s gritty, nuanced performance that carries this truly pathetic film over the edge of despair but does convincingly solve the puzzle of “How could this happen here?” JWR