At its heart and core, today’s movie isn’t really anything new. It’s your basic character study, in which the main character gradually descends into madness, driving away everyone around him in the process. I knew all of this going in, and yet I still wasn’t quite ready for Rampart.

The scene is set in Los Angeles, back in 1999. Our main character is David Douglas Brown (Woody Harrelson), a misanthropic and womanizing racist whose first response to anything is violence. He’s also a Vietnam vet with a tremendous ego and a very hard-assed sense of justice. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a narcotics cop? Well, he’s a narcotics cop working in the LA precinct called “Rampart,” which has grown infamous for its many alleged cases of police brutality. As a case in point, David has picked up the moniker “Date-Rape Dave,” for the time he allegedly murdered a serial rapist on the job. David himself refuses to confirm or deny the incident.

Inevitably, David once again becomes the center of so much controversy after beating someone half to death. It might be a set-up to detract from some other current scandal, it might be a set-up to make an example of David, or it might just be karma. Whatever the case, it’s all downhill from here for David.

Though naturally, we don’t just follow David around during his working life. We also see his family life, which is so many other different kinds of fucked up. See, David first married Barbara (Cynthia Nixon), before divorcing her to marry Catherine (Anne Heche), who just happens to be Barbara’s sister. This means that David’s two daughters — Helen and Margaret, played by Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky respectively — are both cousins in addition to being half-sisters. All of this information is helpfully conveyed in response to Margaret’s perfectly reasonable question, “Am I inbred?”

In spite of all this, the whole complex family manages to live together in two neighboring houses, though the situation is not without difficulties. For one thing, David carries on with his constant drinking, smoking, and one-night stands. There’s also the matter of Helen, who’s extremely bitchy even by “teenage girl” standards. Of course, it’s hard to blame her, considering that she hates her dad for being a monster, much as he tries (and fails) to be a loving father. Also, did you read the last paragraph where I talked about Helen’s family?

First and foremost, the cast in this movie is amazing beyond belief. The film features such outstanding actors as Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Ben Foster (also a producer here), Ned Beatty, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Brie Larson, and Robin Wright, every single one of whom brings a character to vivid life with stunning results. Even Ice Cube — fucking Ice Cube! — gives an awards-worthy performance here.

Woody Harrelson is undoubtedly the best example. In his hands, David is a force of nature. It’s clear just by looking at him that the guy is trouble. The character is completely unlikeable and unrelateable, and Harrelson is smart enough to play David in such a way that we don’t have to like him or relate to him. He’s supposed to be an unsympathetic character, yet David holds the audience’s interest because he’s so interesting to watch. There’s absolutely no telling what he’ll do or why. Furthermore, it’s obvious that for all of David’s misguided methods and his endless bigotry, his heart is in the right place. In his mind, criminals and gangbangers are such a violent and savage lot that nothing less than violent savagery will control them. In a similar vein, as much as David is an absolutely shitty father, it’s clear that he loves his daughters deeply. As much as David goes out and sleeps around, he’s still determined to keep his dysfunctional family together, completely oblivious to the hypocrisy.

There were multiple times when I looked at Harrelson and saw a young George C. Scott on the screen. Harrelson really does bring the level of ferocity and humanity that Scott was so great at. I know that’s heavy praise, but I’m being dead serious here.

The characters in this movie are all fantastic. Not only are they acted to perfection, but their dialogue is superlative from start to finish. The filmmakers clearly put a lot of time and effort into developing them, though maybe a little too much.

For how much I enjoyed this movie, I’m still not sure I could tell you precisely what happened. There are so many scandals, set-ups, deals, lies, and cover-ups in this movie that I’m not even sure the characters themselves could keep it all straight. I found the plot to be very convoluted, and taking a bit of time out of developing the characters to develop the plotlines might have helped a lot. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that the film ends on an ambiguous note that leaves pretty much all of the issues unresolved. In fact, the ending itself was so terribly shot that I’m not completely sure what happened.

The camerawork in this movie ranges from passable to awful. There are far too many close-ups for the movie’s own good, and there are multiple shots in which one character’s face is completely blocked by the back of another character’s head. There’s also a scene involving Harrelson, Buscemi, and Weaver, in which the camera spins 360 degrees between the three of them. Through the entire scene. It was almost enough to make me nauseous. And I won’t even get into the borderline-unwatchable rave scene.

The director and co-writer of this movie was Oren Moverman, whose only previous directorial effort was The Messenger (which I confess I haven’t seen). Incidentally, that was another collaboration with Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson that earned the latter an Oscar nom. I certainly hope that Harrelson gets similar — if not better — luck with this one. As for Oren Moverman, I think that he’s a hell of a writer, but he’s got a ways to go as a director. He’s certainly got potential, and there’s no denying that he swings for the fences, but this film is proof to me that he’s not in the big leagues yet.

Rampart is worth seeing just for its cast. Every single actor in this film gives an Oscar-worthy performance, and that goes double for Woody Harrelson. Unfortunately, the misguided visuals and the undercooked plot are sure signs of a director who hasn’t quite found his footing yet. Because the plot gets so hard to follow, this is a movie that demands the viewers’ full attention and thought. The film is not to be watched passively. If that comes with the illusion of taking a more active role in all the violence and debauchery on the screen, then that’s your cross to bear.