So, the three best films from the upcoming Sydney Film Festival that I’ve seen in advance are all about police. This is surprising to say the least, since I’m pretty much over cop movies. But maybe my suspicion of this way, way overcooked genre is what fuels appreciation for reinterpretation. Or maybe these are just three intelligent and ballsy and unmissable takes on the mentality of law enforcement in contemporary times from three disparate locations around the world.
Rampart – Writer/director Oren Moverman’s deconstruction of the LAPD’s notorious cowboy culture is a brave and scintillating indie drama in the form of a noir thriller. On the surface it’s a fictionalized commentary on the scandals and lawsuits that rocked the brutality-prone department in the 1990s, but the film works on a much more personal level than standard “ripped-from-the-headlines” fare. Co-written by James Ellroy, it gleefully heads right to the dark side and stays there. Woody Harrelson’s powerhouse starring performance as the swaggering, paranoid, dysfunctional Officer “Date Rape” Dave Brown has to be seen to be believed. Rampart isn’t the first film to portray a conflicted man of violence with a disarmingly human side, but the way the screenplay strings us out, helplessly fascinated with this scumbag’s deteriorating professional and personal lives, is masterful. It’s also surprisingly human and oddball, especially in depicting his interactions with his unorthodox family. The weirdly touching scenes between Brown and his punk-rock artist daughter almost belong in another movie (something by, say, Terry Zwigoff or Alexander Payne), and that will put off some viewers, but to me they add resonance to Date Rape’s dirty capers and drunken meltdowns. The great supporting cast features one star after another (Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Robin Wright Penn, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube! an uncredited Steve Buscemi!) in gritty, sometimes ugly roles. The restless, fluid cinematography and editing are breathtaking. I never did get around to seeing Moverman’s 2009 feature directorial debut, the Iraq War drama The Messenger (also starring Harrelson and Foster), but now I’m kicking myself.
Policeman – Maybe the most underrated film in the festival, this is an astonishing debut feature from Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid. Comparing and contrasting the lives and destinies of a squad of elite antiterrorist cops with a group of militant anarchist Jews in contemporary Jerusalem, it comments on the culture of violence we’re all caught up in; it’s a dispatch from a post-Occupy world at war with itself. Though the events it depicts are as outrageous as some kind of near-future apocalyptic comic book, it also creates the bracing but queasy sensation of watching something that’s really happening – which is a rare thing, but exactly what you want from this kind of fiction. The central thesis is that Israel is the “Western” nation with the biggest disparity between classes – a conflict “ripped from the headlines” to be sure, though this movie defies conventional formula in every scene. The ace cinematography makes great use of open, sunbleached landscapes and alienating postmodern urban spaces alike. The style has the feel of a Romanian or Iranian new-wave film, with long takes, a meandering narrative and unorthodox editing – and the sound design in particular is outstanding – but it also has the gut-wrenching suspense of a superior action thriller. Can you tell I’m excited about this movie?
Polisse – This verité-style drama, co-written and directed by Maïwenn, formerly a one-named starlet, now a formidable one-named French auteur, is centered around the cops assigned to the exhausting and demoralising child-protection service in inner-city Paris. Polisse hits hard but with a deft, unpredictable touch, and ultimately puts itself in company with Laurent Cantet’s The Class as a powerful portrait of contemporary France. It matches that film’s tense, incisive, rapid-fire dialogue and psychological insight, with many of its seemingly continual onscreen arguments taking place between haggard adult authorities and suspicious or difficult children, and exploring racial conflict and child abuse with refreshing honesty. To this knotty recipe Maïwenn adds street-level police procedural grit and salty black humour, leavened with surprising bursts of comic release. Despite, or because of, its desaturated, handheld realism it’s a good-looking film too. The acting of the ensemble, including JoeyStarr, an apparently famous French rapper, is suitably excellent.