There are a lot of movies that make you want to be a cop. They glamourize police work the same way many war films do the army. Then there are the ones that deal with the dark side. There’s no sexy “seedy underbelly” where good cops have to do bad things. Instead, there are truly awful situations that apply specifically and solely to police officers. They make you never want to imagine the thought of potentially ever wanting to join the force.
End of Watch is that second one.
End of Watch
Director: David Ayer
Release Date: September 21st, 2012
End of Watch is an odd duck. It occupies a strange space between found footage, mockumentary, and traditional narrative filmmaking. If I had to guess, about 60% of End of Watch is shot diagetically (within the world itself). Police Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is doing a project on life as an LA police officer, and he pretty much always has at least one camera on him, if not more (he also frequently wears a lapel button camera on his uniform and gives his partner, Zavala (Michael Peña), another one). Usually found footage-style movies appear to be shot on a single camera, so the quality is consistent, but that’s not the case here. Aside from the weird angles caused by the occasionally secretive use of the cameras, each one has very different capabilites, so from shot to shot the image fidelity might drop dramatically (or appear significantly higher).
It’s hard to say how much was shot within those cameras, though, because at least 90% of the film appears to have been shot diagetically. Even when there’s no apparent cameraman, it seems like he is there. Zooming, shakiness, camera movement that is affected by a person’s walking (up and down, up and down), etc. all work together to give most of the film a documentary feel. That’s all well and good, but the problem is that it makes no sense.
This is both the film’s greatest strength and its greatest failure. Having the feel of a documentary gives everything a very personal vibe. Unfortunately, it also constantly draws attention to itself. Watching Brian and his girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) do their thing is a bit unnecessary, but the bigger issue is that you know there’s no third person in the room. Still, the cinematography gives the impression that this third person is there, and a bizarre lighting effect makes the whole thing even less clear. I spent much of the film trying to figure out what did and did not make sense in the world itself, because there were a few scenes like that which blurred the line. But the switch from the diagetic to nondiagetic happened constantly, which made for a bit of a jarring experience.
That being said, it allowed for some really intense moments. When the camera becomes part of the world, that makes its use all the more dangerous (and stupid). When watching Cloverfield, you always have to wonder exactly why the cameraman continues to hold the camera. The same is true here, although it’s in a much more realistic setting. Still, the appearance of a physical object (and a person) that can be hurt means that when bullets start flying, there’s yet another thing to worry about.
The one time the weird perspective shifts really bothered me was near the end of the film during some of the final shootouts. After being realistically shot for so long, the film turns into a FPS-gun-is-directly-in-the-center-of-the-screen-iron-sights perspective. If I remember correctly, the look was “justified” by camera placement, but it was completely inappropriate during a life-or-death moment. Bringing a shot that was very clearly inspired by videogames into the film served the exact opposite purpose of what it probably intended to. For most modern gamers, it’s a very recognizable perspective, and it serves to sever the intense connection that the rest of the film was so successful at building. Keeping it in the documentarian style would have been far less distracting and far more effective.
The thing that really made it all work, though, were the character scenes. Brian, Zavala, and Janet all felt very real, as did the rest of the characters. One of the things that can set found footage apart is interspliced banter which is entirely unrelated to the plot of the film. Sure, it does nothing to further the story, but it changes the pace and gives some insight into the characters themselves. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the film involves Brian and Janet as they sing “Hey Ma” by Cam’Ron (a song I’m not particularly fond of). Because End of Watch takes place over a period of time as opposed to a particular event, these moments also serve to make the dangerous moments much more intense. Running the film at 60 from start to finish won’t make any terrible moment or disturbing reveal have any kind of weight, but jerking the story from 0 to 60 will.
And believe you me, there are some disturbing reveals. Brian and Zavala get themselves into some really big trouble and end up way over their heads. Their attempts at detective work have some dire consequences. What they uncover, intentionally or not, is really unpleasant. But it’s not just that. What’s really terrible is the realization that things like that are actually going on every day.
Goddamn am I glad I don’t live in Los Angeles.