Cameras are everywhere in End of Watch, a gritty take on the genre of police drama set in the City of Angels.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 110 minutes
It’s all about the cameras. In End of Watch, a Los Angeles cop and his partner (sometimes in crime) patrol the city’s south side and have a lot to deal with, and police officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) decides to start passing the time by filming what the force does and how they do it.
This gimmick is not narratively grounded in some search for the truth behind the deeds; rather, it is all about participation, and the viewer doesn’t simply look at the events through the eye of Taylor’s camera but through multiple eyes, including those of surveillance cameras and helicopters flying high above the city.
The opening scene is shot from inside a police car, from the point of view of the dashboard camera that captures a chase, suddenly made vivid when the scene abruptly transitions from voiceover to very real-world sounds of racing through the backroads of a lower-class neighbourhood in South Central. When Taylor and his partner, Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), eventually catch up with the speeding perps, there is a shootout that ends with the runaways being shot dead, violently, in broad daylight.
Luckily, director David Ayer had the good sense not to limit his camera style to pocket-sized handheld, though we do get an awful lot of that. There are some significant problems with his choice of style at certain points in the film, top among these the music-video motif he employs during mass shootouts, undercutting the viewer’s feeling of being present at the scene of a crime.
Given the nature of the plot – large parts are connected not by story but by the central duo of Gyllenhaal and Peña, whose banter is lively, engaging and seemingly heartfelt – End of Watch‘s dependence on style is notable. However, save for the moments highlighted above, the approach and the composition of the film by means of precision editing ensure that the viewer never loses interest.
The actors were essential in this process, and their easy delivery of the lines makes for a very real feeling of camaraderie between them, a feeling that the filmmaker certainly counted on with the final moments in mind: The title refers to the death of a policeman, the end of his or her time on the beat.
Most of the day, Taylor and Zavala are out on the streets, driving from one end of their sector to the other, and spending that time talking about seemingly insignificant things that all end up tying them together as friends and partners. Making jokes about each other’s race (Taylor is white, Zavala is Hispanic) and the stereotypes that go along with the colour of their skins, they also talk about things more personal in their own lives, though the discussions are mostly limited to talk of either wives or girlfriends.
These friendly talks are woven into the situational structure of the screenplay, in which they respond to calls for help and follow their instincts, sometimes with good intentions but often with results that only demonstrate the problems produced by their unwillingness to be patient and let the law work itself out.
At times, End of Watch can be incredibly tense – a direct outcome of the film’s visual style. When Taylor and Zavala arrive at an empty house, the camera doesn’t show us any more than what the characters themselves can see. There are no surveillance cameras to warn them of imminent danger, and their (our) view is often obstructed by walls, doors and stairwells.
The process of joining the viewer to the camera is gradual, almost imperceptible, but during one of the film’s final scenes, the impact of having the images in front of us suddenly turn to noise is beyond words, as we realize what bond we have formed with the visuals and how close we have come to the situation and the characters depicted onscreen.
The film offers a novel approach to telling the story of policemen on the job, and, though End of Watch never soars to the level of Paul Haggis’s Crash, a project that also featured Peña, it certainly conveys the grittiness of being a cop and the fact that danger can lurk behind any corner. This is not a story about good cops and bad cops but about human beings who have to face not only the poverty of those they need to protect but also the inhumanity brought about by drugs and violence in a neighbourhood where these are often the only forms of stability.