“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.