End of Watch Review: Natural Police

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End of Watch Review: Natural Police

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | December 7, 2012 | Comments ()

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"Found footage" as filmmaking gimmick has always been pretty limiting, since it forces viewers to accept the notion that, for whatever thin reason is given, the characters on screen decided to film their lives (and keep filming them throughout situations that would make most people put down the camera). But with End of Watch, which follows a pair of LAPD officers on the trail of gang activity, writer-director David Ayer has made the best use of the style possible by mixing it freely with more conventional shots and sequences. We might see a pair of beat cops on patrol filmed via chest- and dashboard-mounted cameras, only to switch in the next moment to classic establishing shots of a city at night, or handheld images of one of the cops alone on a rooftop that are meant to look like found-footage but couldn't possibly be. Ayer freely and easily slides between modes, using whichever best serves the moment. His freedom with the styles feels like something that could only happen now, in a film and TV landscape saturated with faux-documentaries that don't even bother to ask who's holding the camera, or why. (E.g., what unseen interviewers are the characters on "Parks and Recreation" and "Modern Family" even talking to?) He's found a way to make perfect use of found footage without asking the viewer to suspend too much of their disbelief.

He's also come up with a solid narrative way to fold in the scenes shot by the characters. Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a pre-law student in his off hours, and he decides to film his day job for his filmmaking art elective. Instead of making the entire film Taylor's project, Ayer merely cuts to the found footage whenever he needs to, which lets him shift seamlessly between a more detached view of the characters and Taylor's less mature way of shooting and narrating. The tonal shifts happen frequently but easily, and the result is an emotionally nuanced, adult, advanced thriller that lets its characters indict themselves through the found footage. For instance: Within half an hour of the film's start, Taylor and his partner, Miguel Zevala (Michael Peña), find themselves responding to a call and dealing with a trash-talking gang member in a run-down house. Taylor's shooting the action and gleefully egging on Zevala as officer and thug square off. When Zevala and the guy come to blows, Taylor doesn't call it off or drop the camera, either: he whips it between his own smiling face and the two brawling men in front of him.

This is a pretty awful thing for anyone to do, especially a police officer, and Ayer knows it. He's not trying to condone it. What he is doing, though -- and what he does so well throughout the film -- is get out of the characters' way and let their own beliefs and actions carry them through the scene, so that the fight scene's erratic framing and off-screen cheers come across as wicked and queasy. We're not supposed to root for the cop whaling on the citizen or enjoy this moment, but we are supposed to understand why the men involved are acting the way they do, and Ayer nails it. He's so good at living in the tension of these moments -- at the emotional disconnect between knowing you should oppose something and wanting to sympathize with the character who endorses it -- that he's made a movie that a lot of people might overlook or write off as too simple or broad. I say that because the fight between officer and hoodlum drew awkward but definite cheers at the screening I attended, as well as laughter, the two main expressions people default to when they're confronted with something that resists easy interpretation. The reaction came in part because we as viewers have been conditioned to react like crowds watching gladiators whenever we see fights like this, and we focus on the physical nature of the beatdown instead of the people involved. It can also be difficult to process complex reactions to complicated situations, so the easy thing to do is laugh and stay on the surface. We're also not used to movies that employ a dissonance between how a scene feels and how we're supposed to feel about it. Ayer is great at confronting these moments, whipping from humor to posturing to awful violence in a heartbeat but without making us feel like he's showing off. The best moments of End of Watch recall his script for Training Day: It's advanced stuff that doesn't look for easy answers.

Ayer keeps us rooted with the cops at the story's heart, too, grounding the structure in the daily interplay between these two men who spend more time with each other than with anyone else. As a result, the story plays out in elliptical bursts as Taylor and Zevala swagger around like princes of the city, chase bad guys, worry about the women in their lives, and try to stay awake on overnight shifts. Although there's an overall thrust to the narrative, involving an international cartel the officers repeatedly tangle with, some of the film's best scenes stand alone as individual playlets and meditations on friendship and sacrifice. One night, the officers come across a house on fire with a woman on the lawn screaming that her children are still inside. Unwilling to wait for the fire truck that's already been called, the officers race in and fight their way through the smoke to rescue the kids. The scene is shot with dizzying close-ups as they tumble through the haze, holding onto each other and the children as they work toward fresh air. The experience so shakes Taylor that when they finally get back outside, Zevala has to hold him and rock him back into a calmer state, brushing off the firefighters on scene so he can take care of his partner. Ayer slides like quicksilver from tension and suspense to genuine masculine tenderness.

The partners are the heart of the story, and Gyllenhaal and Peña are perfect together. They've got an easy, lived-in chemistry, and they're able to pinball between humor and confession like real partners and friends. Ayer -- who grew up in Los Angeles and spent time in the Navy -- has a perfect ear for the rhythms of banter between partners and the gallows humor employed by people in occupations like these to stay sane. (When one officer meets an unfortunate end, two others shrug and say the tragedy was just a matter of time.) They feel alternately excited by their jobs and totally bored by them, spending as much time on street chases as they do with the ensuing paperwork. Anna Kendrick isn't exactly wasted as Taylor's love interest, though Ayer's more interested in Taylor's experiences and feelings about his life than he is in charting the steps of a relationship's evolution.

Beyond all its modern style, though, End of Watch is a strong, gripping police drama. It's almost an inversion of typical cop thrillers: It's slow where another movie might be fast, sad where another might only want victory. It favors silence over explosions, worry over certainty, character over spectacle. There's a pulse and texture to the film that's become rare in the genre, and so the found footage winds up being anything but distracting. In fact, it does what it's always been designed to do: it makes every moment feel totally real. You forget you're watching a movie.

This review is being republished because the movie is being re-released into theaters today for an awards season run.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • This is a fantastic movie, saw it last night, great soundtrack too!

  • junierizzle

    I loved the shit out of this movie! One of the best of the year. And a great review too.

  • Natallica

    After seeing her on "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World", I truly wish Anna Kendrick to rise above the Twilight crap. Girl can play bitchy sooo well.

  • Stellamaris2012

    Gah! Alamo is *not* playing End of Watch, wth?? I totally want to see this but no way in hell am I going to a regular movie theater.

  • I haven't seen it but I suppose Gyllenhaal's character films his partner whaling on a gang member for the same reason the guards photographed what they did to the prisoners in Abu Graib. You're bored, you think it's funny, and you know you can get away with it.

  • Mavler

    The trailer for this didn't really do anything for me. I like both Pena and Gyllenhaal so I felt a bit disappointed, but this review has totally changed my mind. There's a 1:20 matinee tomorrow with my name all over it.

  • junierizzle

    Had my doubts because of the found footage style. But if I can sit through VHS I should give this a shot.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Hell yes, great review. Can't wait to see this.

  • pissant

    E.g., what unseen interviewers are the characters on “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family” even talking to?

    Don't forget the show that started it all; the American version of The Office. It was the show that made it OK for characters to be followed around for years without end with increasingly ridiculous invasions of privacy. Over the seasons it slowly removed the supposed cameramen until they were only jokingly referred to a handful of times. This paved the way for all the lazy shows that simply tell jokes to the camera.

    Sorry to get off topic...this movie sounds like it is worth checking out.

  • Guest

    British version of the Office* Not as good, but it did come first.

  • pissant

    I specified the American version* because it has problems that the British version avoided. The British version was first, but it was only ten episodes, so it seemed somewhat plausible that they'd be followed by cameras for however long that seemed to be. Then they came back with the special which took place some time later. In the time between the end of the second season and the special, the documentary was released in their fictional world and David Brent had become a bit of a D-list celebrity. The documentary had a real impact on the special.

    The American version pretty much entirely dispensed with the premise of there even being a documentary after a couple of seasons. The scenes where they speak directly to the camera became these strange inner monologues. Can't think of a way to show a character's motivations? Can't think of a way to work in that joke you thought of? Fuck, man, just have 'em say it to the camera! The American Office was the trojan horse of the lazy faux-documentary comedy movement. It was based on the documentary premise at first, but then it changed to what it is now. That opened the doors for Parks & Rec and Modern Family to start out as shows where the characters inexplicably speak directly to the camera a la confessions (or whatever they were called) on reality TV shows like Real World.

    It's really weird how all these pieces fell together and we just accepted it. It's like we think, "People on reality TV (which are quite often basically characters anyway) speak directly to the camera, so why wouldn't these fictional characters do the same for no reason?". I used to chuckle every now and then when I'd watched one of these shows with a friend, but I've grown tired of this lazy genre. "Hey, here's Aziz Ansari to rattle off ten funny ways he refers to food or eating utensils!....aaaaannnndddd wrap up with a humorous and slightly heart-warming confession-style voice-over while showing other characters doing stuff aaaaannnnnndddd that's a wrap!".

    * - And, really, does the fact that I specified the American version not tell you that I know about the British version and that it came first?

  • irishfan1988

    WTF, not as good!? not as good!? U may be f**king retarded. On every level superior to the American version, which is a good show and came second. Not as good... WTF.

  • nrvs

    Firstly... I think the British Office did attempt to justify the interviews. And secondly, are you fucking retarded?

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