Thursday, November 15, 2012

'End of Watch' (2012) directed by David Ayer, 13th November 2012

I've got a soft spot for 'found footage' films.  'The Blair Witch Project' traumatised me in 1999 and 'Cloverfield' had me gripping the edge of my seat in 2009.  These types of films get a lot of stick, frequently being accused of a lazy way to make a film (to be fair, this is sometimes justified).  I love it, turning the characters into cameraman doesn't feel like laziness to me, it's an opportunity.  By seeing the world through their eyes (or at least through their cameras) we can literally see the world how they do.  It allows the audience to take root inside the character, letting us experience the world of the film much more viscerally.

This direct, personal experience is crucial here.  'End of Watch' is a film about LAPD beat cops in South Central.  I've never had any experience with the LAPD, but through popular culture I've built up an image, rightly or wrongly, of them as corrupt, racist, violent thugs.   We spend the film in the company of two cops, Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) and Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Taylor is taking a film class and has decided to film everything about his job as a cop.  This is really more of a framing device, and we soon forget the actual physical constraints of filming like this as we explore the world and the different characters in it.

'End of Watch' exploits our expectations of what a modern audience expects in a film about the police.  As the film beings we're expecting to see these cops go off the rails, to expose themselves as corrupt and self-serving, to be loose cannons who break the rules but get the job done.  I'd seen the trailer a week or so ago, and it seemed to be selling us on a story of two rogue cops whose selfishness gets them in over their heads with the mob.  This isn't what the film is about at all, and it's almost jarring when you realise that these characters are genuinely good, smart people who for the most part treat the people they come into contact with respect and good humour. 

Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) and Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal(
Outside the cinema, I'm not particularly enamoured with the behaviour of the police.  I read a steady trickle of news from the US that has cops doing things like tasering 10 year olds, punching cyclists, shooting people by mistake, viciously beating handcuffed men and generally being extremely unpleasant people.  In the opening scenes of this film I thought all these negative qualities were about to be confirmed.  At the beginning of the film we see our characters engaged in a car chase which ends with them gunning down the perps. Back at the station we see them laughing and joking in the locker room.  They act blase about killing, even when they're reminded that this is homicide even if allowed under the law, and we sense they've enjoyed the adrenaline rush.  This behaviour, coupled with the fact Zavala and Taylor look and behave like bonehead bro types meant that I didn't exactly start out the film with a huge deal of sympathy for them.

Very quickly however, they reveal that they're quite a bit deeper than most cinematic policemen.  A large portion of the film is them driving around on patrol in South Central LA chatting away to each other.  These conversations reveal that these are two intelligent men with a surprisingly nuanced and humanistic view of the world.  Taylor, for example, is desperately trying to find an intelligent woman to have a long-term relationship with.  After a string of short flings, he's less interested with getting them into the bedroom than being able to have a decent conversation with them.  Zavala on the other hand is married with a child on the way and seemingly deeply in love with his wife.  He talks proudly about the strength of their relationship and how important he considers the bond of marriage to be.
When we finally get to meet their partners, Gabby (Natalie Martinez and Janet (Anne Kendrick), we get to see a softer and more likeable side to them.  Their interactions are sweet and touchingly emotionally honest, both men consider the women their better halves and take their advice and opinions seriously.

Brian Taylor and Janet (Anna Kendrick)
These two characters are further developed by the ways in which they react to the situations they find themselves in, or by what they're confronted with in the line of duty.  When they find abused children they seem genuinely shaken up by the experience.  Their fury at the perpetrators of this abuse feels genuine, and you can sense them straining against the limits of their moral code.  At various points in the film they're confronted by scenes of extreme violence, and refreshingly for a Hollywood film the characters are clearly physically nauseated by it, realistically retching and gagging.

Both Pena and Gyllenhaal are absolutely excellent in this film.  The relationship between the two policemen is the backbone of the film and both men are so relaxed and comfortable in each other's company here that it's almost inconceivable that the two men aren't friends in real life.  Martinez and Kendrick compliment these performances with their own excellent work, and although they don't have nearly as much screen time both women quickly and effectively define themselves as intelligent and kind.

As someone viewing this film from the other side of the world, South Central LA is portrayed here as a violent urban warzone.  We see the police kitting up at the start of the film, and as they pack shotguns, pistols and pepper spray into their police cruiser they look more like soldiers heading off to war than cops.  The enemy are Mexican drug cartels, gangs notorious for their extreme violence and voracious expansion of territory.  

He's really a very sensitive man.  Seriously.
When I think of gangs in South Central LA I imagine of drive by shootings between the Crips and the Bloods, two gangs squaring off against each other for territory.  But as the film tells it, their glory days seem to be over.  They've been trumped in organisation, wealth and sheer viciousness by these Mexican Drug Cartel.  The cartel members are overtly vile people,  physically and sexually threatening to everyone around them.  They exist in a twilight, lit dramatically even though the film is ostensibly 'reality'.  In terms of morality they seem utterly straightforwardly evil (their leader is in fact called 'Big Evil'), almost to a cartoonish level).

With all these heavily tattooed, perpetually angry and incredibly sweary gang members, 'End of Watch' runs the risk of promoting some very unfortunate stereotypes.   David Ayer doesn't shy away from tackling racial issues, an emotive subject which to the film's credit it sensibly and skilfully navigates.  The flipside to the demonisation of the cartels is the  character of Zavala, through whom we get a view of a far healthier and more positive latino community.  The importance of family bonds is repeatedly emphasised here, with Zavala's family held up as an exemplary example of a mutually supportive family network.  If our characters can be said to have a goal outside of enforcing the law, living in warm and loving domesticity is it. Ayer consciously sets up this point of comparison: the film cuts from a sinister night time drug fuelled party with pounding bass music to a well lit, friendly and happy community hall where Zavala's sister's quinceaƱera is taking place.

Also a very nice person.  I think here he's about to smash some guy in the snotbox.
The considered, nuanced performances and the intelligent direction and writing all form the foundation of an incredibly effective film.  This means that when the action kicks off it's almost unbearably tense.  The film has gone to such lengths to establish a feeling of realism that every gunshot feels impossibly threatening.  The sound during these scenes is outstanding, with some of the loudest, most unpleasant sounding gunfire I've heard in a film.  The film exploits this, making the cartel's gunfire tinny and trebly, while the cops' guns make a slightly more pleasant bassy booming sound.  More than in most action films, the guns feel dangerous, every bullet potentially a killer.

I do think that the film goes slightly too far in deifying the police force.  There are a few scenes where the film loses it's way a little bit and tips over into what feels like blatant propaganda.  In particular there's a lengthy monologue by a side character about how his partner took a bullet for him that's unbearably glurgy.  By and large the film avoids these pitfalls, though in one light that probably means it's successful propaganda.  I suspect that this hero worship of the police, whose methods and behaviour are never criticised, is a consequence of their co-operation with the production of the film.  The production detail is incredible here, and it feels authentic from start to finish. 

Los Angeles looks like a total dump in this film.
Despite these serious misgivings, the kind of which should generally kill a film stone dead for me, I couldn't help but find 'End of Watch' an utterly gripping experience. The characterisation is dead on, you can't help but like these two men and hope for the best for them.  This attachment we develop to them, and the emotions we invest in their relationship transforms the action scenes into tense, unpredictable and terrifying nightmares.  But then on the other hand this is a great PR coup for the LAPD and it'd be perfectly reasonably to argue that this film is merely a two hour long recruitment ad.  Ultimately I'm torn between being politically suspicious of it but absolutely loving it as a piece of cinema.   It's definitely worth seeing, if only for a glimpse into a world where policemen can be smart, kind and conscientious individuals.

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