Woody Harrelson did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Officer Dave Brown in Rampart.
Woody Harrelson is given the chance to take on the often juicy role of the corrupt police officer. Harrelson is an actor who I haven't always loved but I have never denied his evident talent. It is interesting to see him take on this challenging role, which seems like perhaps an even greater challenge given that the film surrounding him is not particularly good. Now Dave Brown does not have a pressing issue in the opening of the film like say Alonzo Harris in Training Day or Henry Oak in Narc. Dave is his own issue. In the early scenes we see Harrelson as Dave handles his job. Harrelson plays it as less as the master of the streets and more of a thug in a uniform. There is a moment very early on where Dave orders another one of his fellow officers to finish their french fries since he hates people wasting food despite rarely eating himself. Harrelson does not portray this as Dave offering any sort of sage thought, but rather depicts Dave's reaction as annoyance which he corrects bluntly like a proper bully.
This behavior continues as Dave gets into his first bit of PR and legal trouble after a man accidentally crashes into his cruiser. Dave proceeds to repeatedly beat the man with his billy club. Harrelson offers a surprisingly effective approach by downplaying it in a way. He does not suddenly become some deranged lunatic rather he makes the action instead feel like standard procedure for Dave. Again it's less a direct outrage, more of an annoyance, which again does not feel like Harrelson is taking it lightly. Harrelson instead suggests so well the mindset of Dave when on the job which carries a considerable sense of entitlement. Once again Harrelson makes his bully feel very real by the ease in which he shows the beat down. Harrelson keeps in mind the real motivation of Dave, which seems foolish in its simplicity. Harrelson though presents a man with an inherent disdain for people in general who is given an outlet to inflict this against others through his job as an officer. Dave's trials begin though because cameras caught this indulgence.
Dave has to deal with the legal action against him, and Harrelson continues to excel in the role as portrays this sort of switch in Dave. It's not a real switch, and it is in the same exact frame of mind Dave's usually in. That being Harrelson continues to convey this indulgence that so often defines Dave, and the fascinating thing is Harrelson manages to exude this most curious type of power. The power essentially in the lack of shame not only in terms of the crime, but also his ability to skirt any ramifications around the crime. Harrelson is simply great as he does depict Dave in his element as he takes on the assistant district attorney by breaking down exactly what he will do to deal with any charges filed against him. It is in this that Harrelson shows a control, and an understanding in man who is quite sure of his grip on the system knowing exactly how to exploit it to his will. Harrelson reveals a definite comfort in Dave when it comes to this naturally revealing the intelligence that enables his brutish actions.
I love what Harrelson does with the role because he fulfills what you'd expect from a dirty cop, but never quite in the way you might expect it. He manages to do this in a wholly authentic fashion in which he never allows for a thin characterization. There is not a scene where his Dave is one note, even at his very worst. Even in the early beating, or a later scene where he kills some thieves to rob them. Again the base motivation is clear, but that's never all there is to Harrelson's work in these scenes. As he commits the "crimes" Harrelson reveals a certain desperation all within it. Although the man is committing these acts, Harrelson does not show them as evil per se rather as reflections of man doing things the only way he still really knows how. The downfall of Dave is never Dave becoming progressively worse, or more of a bad man so to speak. Harrelson again makes it far more complex in the vivid detail he finds through the nuance he brings to every scene. In the robbery scene Dave lets one of the thieves go as he's not quite so cold blooded as to execute a man in that way. A short moment yet remarkable as Harrelson portrays an earnest humanity, even within one of his most terrible scenes, and makes it true to the character.
As Dave's professional life falls apart so does his personal, though again it's not the descent you might expect. Dave's life is already a mess living with two sisters, having a daughter with each, with all except his youngest daughter treating him with a certain disdain to begin with. Harrelson is outstanding by once more taking an atypical approach in these interactions. In the early scenes Harrelson never plays it as the mean father or husband in the traditional way. Harrelson brings a lived in quality in his cruelty which is never overt, but gentle. It is in the occasional statement which is never yelled, but there is very relaxed barbarism. This extends to the nature of his relationships, which we see the beginnings of when he picks up a lawyer at a bar. Harrelson frankly makes Dave's peculiar life believable as he is extremely charming in the moment, but even in the margins Harrelson places in the faults of the man. In this case a lapses of paranoia that she's out to get him in some way. Harrelson subtly infects the negative against the positive in the man's behavior always reinforcing that the seeds of alienation are already there as Dave cannot help himself.
Harrelson work here is exceptional as he never goes about just making you want to hate Dave, but rather goes about making you understand him which is rather something. He's never just a personification of police cruelty but always a person. Harrelson by doing this makes this into a far more affecting performance than one would expect. As Dave's mistakes only mount up he is abandoned by everyone around him including his family. Harrelson is incredibly moving in the scenes where Dave is forced to be separated from his daughters. Harrelson reveals a genuine heartbreak in Dave that feels wholly earned. This leads to a moment where he meets his daughters one last time and he admits that everything people say about him is true. Harrelson does not use this moment to show just how nasty Dave is, but rather brings such a vulnerability in the admission. He's heartbreaking as he presents a man who is aware of all that he's lost because of his hate, but still accepts who he is. Now if Rampart was a great film this would still be a great performance. What's so amazing is that despite the film's weaknesses Harrelson never falters. His work is consistent, and makes Dave consistently compelling even when the film is very messy. He rises well above the film he's in crafting a singular and complex portrait of a troubled man.