Film Review – End of Watch
It isn’t often I get to see a film where even though there are a fair amount of issues I can nitpick, the overall project is so compelling that the issues don’t matter. End of Watch is one of those movies. The more I think back on the film, the more flaws come to my mind—but the more it also reinforces how much I liked it.
The film is written and directed by David Ayers, who has made a career out of police movies, having previously written Training Day, SWAT, and Dark Blue, as well as directing Street Kings. His specialty has been in police corruption, and with the exception of Rampart, if you have seen a corrupt cop movie in the last decade, he probably had something to do with it. That ends up being the most jarring part of End of Watch; I was waiting for some of the characters to do something wrong, but this isn’t a story about corruption—it is about the challenges of being a cop, and a story about friendship. It doesn’t try to be tricky like Training Day; its simplicity itself is captivating. The plot follows two young cops, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), through the highs and lows of their job. Gradually, their work begins to put them in the crosshairs of a drug cartel, putting them in increasingly more danger.
The narrative of the film is a bit confusing in its structure. The story takes place over many months, if not years. The passage of time is hard to keep track of, but it would definitely be described as a slow burn. For a large portion of the movie, it feels like a slice-of-life cop story, and only in the last quarter or so does a narrative arc begin to tie everything together. This slow pacing could potentially turn people off if they didn’t care about the characters, but for me the most engaging aspect of the film is the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Peña, whose bond is what keeps you hooked even when they are doing sometimes mundane police work. This isn’t so much a story of cops as it is about two friends who happen to be cops. At a certain point, I was debating whether the filmmakers needed to bring in a clear narrative arc to make the film worthwhile. Still, the characters’ story is enriched by a great supporting cast; particularly noteworthy are Anna Kendrick, America Ferrara, and Natalie Martinez.
The best comparison I’ve been able to come up with for End of Watch is The Hurt Locker. Not because their stories have anything in common, but because of the fact that they are more tone-driven movies than plot-driven. In both of them, there is an ominous feeling throughout the entire movie, where you are constantly waiting for something to go wrong. They capitalize on the power of imagination and the fear of the unknown—the things you are expecting to happen are far worse than most of the things that do happen, but there is a danger hovering over the story. Here, because you care about Gyllenhaal and Peña, you are constantly on high alert.
One of the interesting decisions Ayers made with the film was to use a pseudo-documentary style in his camerawork. A lot of the camera footage in the movie is taken by the characters. This can be a point of contention, though, because it is only partially done—the film cuts back and forth between the cameras of the characters and similar handheld-style camerawork that is more like an omnipotent presence. In addition to Gyllenhaal’s and Peña’s cameras, the film cuts between other individuals using cameras of their own. Gyllenhaal’s character is explained to be doing it for a film class, but there is little explanation for why other characters do it or how it has all been combined together.
The film is definitely graphic and certainly earned its R rating. The brutality of the situations the characters find themselves in can be pretty shocking. The film does a great job of displaying the grind of being a police officer and some of the disturbing things they have to see. There is a lot of violence, and if you have a squeamish stomach, this film might be a lot to take. But if you’re a fan of Breaking Bad or something of that equivalent, then you should be fine.
Despite the flaws, End of Watch is an unflinching look at the danger of police work. It is unlikely that this film will achieve the critical success of The Hurt Locker, but it is very possible that it will make my top ten films of the year.
Final Grade: A-