I tried to go see The Master yesterday afternoon. As it’s been out here in London for a couple of weeks, I was the only person in the theater. Unfortunately, just before the film started, an employee came and told me that the projector was broken. I had the option to see any film that was about to start and get a comp ticket as well. This is how I chose to see the new cop film, End of Watch. I had seen the trailer and was intrigued but hadn’t planned on paying to see it in the theater. I was pleasantly surprised and simultaneously disappointed.
Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are Los Angeles Police Department partners who work a violent beat in South Central. Brian is taking law classes and is forced to take an elective and chooses filmmaking. He decides to film his day-to-day life on the beat. As such, the film is constructed largely by the digital footage of camcorders and lapel cameras that Brian uses and asks Mike to wear. We’ll set the legality of this plot device aside…along with much of Brian and Mike’s place tactics.
The footage follows their daily patrol as they pursue, fight, arrest, and ultimately fall victim to gang bangers and drug dealers. As they make arrests, the two learn that what might be a run-of-the-mill drug-dealing gang reaches further into the criminal world into human trafficking and some gruesomely disturbing mass murders. The filmmakers have a flirtatious relationship with this violence, sometimes showing it in all its horrific brutality and at other times skimming over it.
There are a few things to like about End of Watch, starting with the lead actors Gyllenhaal and Peña. The two manage to create a real bond that pays off in the end. You get the sense that the two could easily be close, long-time friends off screen. They seem to capture the stresses and effects of such a demanding job and turn off the switch to cavort off duty or in down times on patrol.
The film is a testament to the heroism of police officers, particularly those who work in more violent crime-riddled neighborhoods in our country. It shows the fine line that officers must walk and the tenuous relationships that they form with gang members…often ignoring minor offenses in pursuit of bigger offenders (marijuana use and possession gets a huge pass here…are you paying attention Mr. President and members of Congress?!). There’s a truly absurd boxing match between Mike and Mr. Tre (Cle Shaheed Sloan), a black “bad guy” that allows the filmmaker to draw this out (more on this below). It’s also a disturbing excuse for police brutality: hey, it’s just the way they have to get things done.
One of the strengths of End of Watch is also its weakness. While the filmmakers invest energy into developing Brian and Mike’s characters and relationships, they unfortunately fail to do so with the “bad guys,” an appropriate generic term for the gang members the two police officers confront. As in most police dramas (The Wire famously aside), the “bad guys” here are cardboard cutouts, black and/or Latino gang members bent on taking down “the man.” Seriously, one of the gang members is named Big Evil. There’s an effort to show diversity here in the film, but it just feels pedantic and hollow. The “bad guys” exist only to prop up the heroism of the lead duo, a heroism already on display in other selfless, less violent ways.
The strength of the film’s hand-held aesthetic is betrayed in one key moment that enhances “the bad guy’s” disposability. For much of the film, the action is either haphazard digital, shot from the perspective of being in on the action. This frequently works to heighten suspense and drama. In other places, footage reverts to an objective third party, fixed shot that helps establish or solidify the setting. This aesthetic back-and-forth holds until a crucial moment in the penultimate shoot out between the partners and a group of Latino gang bangers hired to take them out.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT.
As backup officers riddle the “bad guys” with bullets, the camera lulls into slow motion, capturing the gang members’ balletic dance of death reminiscent of Penn or Peckinpah or any number of their cinematically violent protege. Rather than draw attention to the tragedy of their own deaths and the brutality of violence, it’s clear that the filmmakers use these shots and this scene to heighten our sense of satisfied revenge, that those who so brutally attacked our authority figures have been properly disposed of.
And speaking of death, we have another filmmaker in writer/director David Ayer who refuses to let the audience feel the full weight of its tragedy. Having run into a trap, in which Brian eventually admits to “messing up,” the two partners are repeatedly fired upon. Brian is shot, and while Mike comforts him until backup arrives, he forgets his vulnerability. The gang bangers sneak up behind him and open fire. His body takes all of the bullets as he falls, consequently, as protection over Brian’s body, recalling an earlier scene in which their sergeant drunkenly shared the story of his partner taking a bullet for him. Mike dies, and Brian miraculously (?) lives.
There’s no easy narrative choice to make here in who lives and dies, which is why it would have been more effective (and realistic?) if they both had. This ending would have been difficult to bear but would have ultimately had more impact on the audience. Moreover, Ayer refuses to give death and tragedy the last word as the film concludes with a humorous and crass flashback to a conversation between Brian and Mike in which the latter shares his experience of hiding in the same room while his future in-laws were having sex.
As a result, we have a light-hearted ending that betrays the tone of the final third of the film and the pain that the characters feel at Mike’s funeral, especially his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) and Brian’s new wife Janet (Anna Kendrick, who in a brilliant moment of reaction at the sight of Gabby’s grief realizes her own potential fate as well). Here, the “women” are largely window dressing as we only “learn” about them through Brian and Mike’s conversations about them and in a few throw-away scenes of the four laughing it up together.
Thankfully, End of Watch is not unwatchable. The handheld footage is understandably wobbly and might put off some viewers, but it’s not really distracting. As I mentioned earlier, there’s an occasionally unflinching look at the effects of brutal violence, which is welcome but also betrayed by an over-determined aestheticization. There will be, no doubt, many viewers who praise the film for its police heroics, and rightfully so. However, End of Watch also fails to portray, consistently, the world in which heroes like Brian and Mike work that is rarely so black and white.
End of Watch (109 mins.) is rated R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use.