Yes – with caveats
End of Watch is a weird movie. It is weird in that it is a conventional genre film that is aesthetically experimental. It is weird in that it goes to really dark places, but has morally righteous main characters. It is weird in best parts are the parts that play least like a film from the genre it is part of. It is also one hell of an (intentionally?) ugly looking movie.
Let’s get this out of the way, if you are not one for found footage, especially if the film half heartedly attempts to justify the conceit, you will not enjoy End of Watch as much as it probably deserves. That’s right, End of Watch is a found footage buddy cop, hang out, police procedural. And if that jumble of aesthetics and genres doesn’t at least makes you curious, at least know that the film holds together better than it has any right to.
It is aesthetically bold (let’s put it that way) in its approach to film making and delivering narrative. End of Watch operated part of the time as a found footage film being made by one of the two main cop characters for a film class, intercut with found footage shot by gang members and “traditional” third person coverage. The traditional coverage adopts as much of the aesthetic properties of the found footage as possible, with zooms, handheld camera works for what appears to be a deliberate attempt to imitate autofocus. This does increase the intimacy between audience and characters by reducing our distance from them, but it is kind of surreal and disorienting, not entirely being sure whether we are watching from a character’s perspective or not, except for noticing a bump in image detail from time to time.
Coupled with the use of found footage is a breaking of rules and conventions you would expect from traditional coverage. Shots are framed at odd angles, the line is broken, and temporal continuity between cuts is played with, lending the film a jittery energy in high tension moments. It’s a kind of raw, punk feel that makes me feel it could have benefitted Suicide Squad. At least in part, not for a whole movie. A particular segment of note is a fire rescue that is dazzlingly disorienting, and rather tense as a result. Shot primarily from point of view miniaturised digital video cameras, frantically cutting between the two characters, low to the ground as they are crawling through a smoke filled house. It is immediate, nauseatingly so. So much so that when the characters exit the house, the relative stillness and space afforded by the exterior location is rendered just as surreal as the disjointed interior shots.
And it is when things slow down and switch gears to hang out flick that things actually start going from interesting aesthetic experiment to good time at the movies. This film lives and dies on the performance of its two central characters, and their chemistry is so electric and genuine, it feels like you are on a ride along with people who have been friends for years. They bond through playful teasing, recounting stories from their youths, and talking about their better halves. There is a sense of warmth and humanity present here that speaks to a commitment to its characters first and foremost, only then building tension and adding wrinkles to the narrative after we have become invested.
There is a degree of character truth in this movie completely absent from a lot of other genre fair, and it really elevates Ayer’s macho-men doing macho things raison d’être. When the macho-men are these fun to hang with and have humanity threatening to burst out from under their braggadocio, it really makes you want the primary plot line that is running through the film (one you don’t particularly notice is there until the film nears its third act) to just drop away and leave us alone with these two.
It is all the more impressive to note that a number of these scenes were shot within the confines of a squad car. Gyllenhaal and Peña are that engaging that looking at them dead on from what is effectively an inwards pointed dash cam is one of the highlights of the film. Likewise it is impressive that given a lot of the film is disconnected “day in the life” moments, that there is a rising tension and a narrative that develops in plain sight, but isn’t noticed until the climax.
It is a bit of a shame that the peripheral characters don’t feel as developed, nor are given much to do than to remind the viewer that there are other people in the lives of these two cops. In pareticular, their love interests are wasted. Moments with them are sweet and hint at even more humanity, but there isn’t enough of them to get much more of a sense of what they are like and what life with them is all about. For a movie about the life of an LAPD officer on and off the job, it spends too little time developing the off the job side of things.
All up though, End of Watch is an energetic, intimate movie that largely succeeds because of the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Peña. A genre experiment with real emotional heft, and one that promised good things to come from Ayer. These good things have yet to materialise, but the potential is there.
Something to dwell on:
As good as the film’s strengths are, its treatment of criminals leaves something to be desired in these #blacklivesmatter, “let’s build a wall” days. They are nothing but violent vessels for conflict. Not human being, just plot devices. Ayer himself makes note of this as a device to strengthen thenfilm’s narrative thrust and avoid confusing the audience’s sympathies. It is a film about good cops doing good things, after all, and having richly sketched gang bangers would get in the way of the film’s purity of intent. But Ayer has gone further to acknowledge that this is definitely not the case in real life, that he is sorry for selling them out and making them look like nothing more than evil violence machines. But 1) that was in a director’s commentary track, 2) cinema is a force for influencing and strengthening one’s beliefs, as much as it is about all the other things it achieves. You only need look at the Twitter response to Olympus has Fallen to see that racists having their racist views, not only unchallenged, but seemingly validated and legitimised by mainstream cinema is an honest, real world problem that we cannot ignore.