David Ayer’s End of Watch is an excellent film, a smart and authentic cop drama filled with visceral thrills and genuine pathos. It is one of the best of its kind, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I must, however, begin this discussion with my sole major complaint, for it is the element most likely to bother or distract viewers. End of Watch is shot with a hybrid of documentary and ‘found footage’ aesthetics, and their effectiveness, as always, is questionable.
I do not doubt for a minute the necessity to tell this story through gritty, ‘fly-on-the-wall’ camerawork. The central aim of the film is to give the viewer a candid window into the lives of Los Angeles police officers, and using documentary techniques reinforces the spontaneous, improvised nature of the material. None of the film appears polished, or even planned, and that increases our emotional investment in these characters at every turn. The cinematography subconsciously creates a belief that these events are real, that the outcome of every situation is truly unpredictable, and that these figures are not actors, but real, imperfect men leading very dangerous lives. I cannot imagine a conventionally photographed version of this story.
The problem is that Ayer often feels he must provide an explanation for why the movie looks the way it does, so he employs the ‘found-footage’ technique that has been steadily popularized over the last decade. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character apparently attends a film class in his spare time, and therefore carries a camera with him everywhere he goes. It is an unnecessary and distracting convolution that constantly pulls the viewer out of the movie. I have always believed that the ultimate failing of ‘found-footage’ films is their inability to properly explain why the characters would film every single action, and while End of Watch does not offend as egregiously as some of its peers, every mention or sight of Gyllenhaal’s camera temporarily broke my belief in the reality of the drama.
It’s not just that I have trouble believing a police officer would be allowed to photograph sensitive crime scenes. It’s that nothing about Gyllenhaal’s character indicates he is the kind of man who would do this. Yes, we are told he attends a film class, but we never find out why, or when, or even how he has the time or energy to do so. It is not an established part of his character, so when he whips out his camera while chasing down criminals, all the hard work the film has done to craft an authentic reality is momentarily tossed out the window. To be fair, much of the film is not shot from a character’s point-of-view, so it is an infrequent problem on the whole. But it is a problem, one I feel is worth mentioning when the rest of the movie does just about everything right.
End of Watch is primarily a character piece, and while there is an overarching narrative involving the local cartel, the focus is not on plot. Instead, the film is a window into the lives of Officers Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña), longtime partners who love each other like brothers. Their relationship is the centerpiece of the film, and the central insight Ayer offers is that even though these men experience a tremendous amount of change – marriage, children, shootouts, chases, etc. – their friendship never deteriorates. As time goes by, it is only strengthened. For when one lives a dangerous life, where everything one knows could disappear in a manner of seconds, one’s strongest bedrock is the person who understands this lifestyle best. Wives, friends, and children may be equally important, but they cannot comprehend what it is to be a cop the way one’s partner can. Many films have explored this sacred bond police share with one another, but few have ever cut to the heart of the issue as eloquently as End of Watch.
Much of the credit must go to Gyllenhaal and Peña, two spectacular performers who share an easy, natural chemistry. The majority of the film is devoted to watching these two interact, as cops or as friends, and if the actors weren’t as committed to the roles as they are, I could see the film falling apart very fast. The characters are extremely well defined as written, but Gyllenhaal and Peña’s performances seem largely improvised, as though they are feeling out Taylor and Zavala’s various imperfections and strengths as they go. That sense of spontaneity is incredibly compelling, reinforcing the idea that, in the real world, humans do not come fully formed. We are a constant work-in-progress, and the highly dynamic nature of these characters reflects that.
Authenticity is the central creative motif across the board, as Ayer’s attention to detail is staggering from start to finish. We have seen drug busts, car chases, and shootouts on film before, but rarely with such intense levels of real-world grit. Taylor and Zavala always call in reports properly when on the job; thought is given to the consequences of unloading a firearm; corners are checked, procedure is followed, and when the characters must break standard protocol, it is treated as a legitimately big deal. Films and TV Shows so often fudge the realities of police work to ‘heighten’ the drama, but End of Watch proves that by playing with real-world rules, the stakes can seem even higher and more tangible. Seeing the ‘normal’ routine of Taylor and Zavala’s profession makes the life-threatening moments so much more frightening; these incidents are not expected, and throw the characters and audience out of their element.
When Ayer does go into full-on ‘action movie’ mode, he does so spectacularly, ratcheting up the tension as far as it will go before pushing even further. He overplays the ‘shaky-cam’ style in some of the bigger action scenes, but the sense of jeopardy never disappears. The finale, in particular, pushed me further towards the edge of my seat than I have gone in months. It is an incredible ending. Though not quite as bold as it initially appears to be, the climax is frank, terse, and completely disinterested in leaving the audience happy. It stays true to the central themes of the film, even if doing so means going to very dark places, and for that, I respect End of Watch immensely.
It is rare these days to find a cop drama that truly excels, that circumvents expectations and offers a fresh, unique perspective on a long-standing cinematic conversation. This is what End of Watch provides, and even if certain stylistic choices ring hollow, the film does so much right – I feel remiss for not mentioning Ayer’s outstanding musical selections, for instance – that the overall experience is an immensely powerful one.