Captivating and engaging, End of Watch is a miracle of a cop movie that provides us with characters worth rooting for and a rare cinematic look at good cops.
End of Watch follows the day to day exploits of two uniformed LA police officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) as they do their jobs and live their lives. Their lives become much more complicated when they find themselves on the wrong side of a ruthless drug cartel after they seize a large amount of drugs and money during a routine traffic stop. The story is told through a combination of cinema verite style camera set ups, character point of view shots and more traditional camera work to give the audience multiple perspectives and to take them into the scenes in as effective way as possible. The conceit in the film that allows this is that Tyler is working on a documentary for his elective film class he is taking on his way to law school and he is putting together a documentary about the life of being a cop. Toward this end he carries a hand held cam corder at times and uses mini cams attached to his and Zavala’s lapels. The film also gives views from other cameras including the squad car’s dashboard cam and will also cut to traditional film shots.
Right off the bat, one of the issues a lot of people will have about this movie is the use of the POV and Cinema Verite styles. Given the misnomer ‘found footage’ a fair number of potential audience members may be put off by what has become a cliche and overly relied upon method of budget film making. While I think the movie could have done without some of these shots I feel that the style was effective for allowing intimate fly on the wall moments of the two characters driving around talking about their lives and themselves. These candid moments are allowed to play as long as they need to even when they don’t seem to advance the plot. In a traditional film narrative these moments would feel awkward and long and would likely be cut for time and seeming lack of relevance. The editing out of these scenes, however, would serve to hamstring the emotional impact of the movie and take away one of the things that makes the film so special: the compelling human connection.
Most cop movies serve the action and crime drama aspects first and leave character development to be filled in during the quiet moments if at all. Here we are given a film that turns that balance on its head and offers us compelling character moments against a back drop of crime and violence that never overtakes the central narrative. This allows the audience to connect to the characters and follow them through a nightmarish world of danger and violence with real concern. For the characters’ part, we are allowed to see complete aspects of their lives day to day and it is made much clearer that the sorts of things that would make an average person lose control of his or her bodily functions are part of the day to day routine for these characters.
Further along these lines, most cop movies, including writer/director David Ayer’s previous efforts such as Street Kings, Training Day and Dark Blue, involve dirty cops and corruption. If there is a good cop it will be a morally compromised one trying to do right in a sea of graft and abuse. More likely it is just bad cops being bad while the good ones are chewed up and spit out. End of Watch is not an indictment of the LAPD and a charge of corruption but is rather a love letter to people who put on a uniform and step in harm’s way to keep the rest of us safe. These sorts of cops are given the short shrift in Hollywood because good is often seen as boring but End of Watch shows us that good cops can be even more compelling to watch than bad ones.
Throughout the movie the audience follows these two guys during a number of ups and downs from birth and marriage (Anna Kendrick plays Tyler’s girlfriend and eventual wife) to the toll violence takes on not only the weak but also the strong on the force. Because of this the film is an emotional roller coaster offering very real laughs which are often followed by very real gasps and possibly tears. I am not sure I have ever seen a cop movie, or a movie in general, so effective at drawing me into the lives of the characters.
Certainly the writing and direction would have been all for naught if the performances had been bad but here the actors do their jobs enormously well. Jake Gyllenhaal does a terrific job of presenting a full person on the screen who cannot be categorized easily as one type of person or another. He gives us an honesty that transcends some occasional stiff delivery or awkward moment. As good as Gyllenhaal is, Pena is the real standout here as he is effortless in his portrayal of Zavala and gives us a well rounded and perfectly realized character that it is difficult not to like. As far as Anna Kendrick is concerned I am now operating in the confines of a very deep crush on her so I am somewhat biased but she is fantastic and equally effortless.
Conclusion [10 out of 10]
This is currently my vote for best film of the year. Heading into awards season that might change but for the moment, this is it. It may also be the best cop movie ever made. What it does, it does perfectly and there was never a moment in its almost two hour run time that I was anything less than completely engaged. The shooting style may be a deal breaker if you have motion sickness issues or if you just hate the style but I feel it is well worth putting up with even if you hate it because of the content it delivers. This is a fantastic movie that deserves much more attention than it is getting and I recommend it whole heatedly.