56th BFI London Film Festival Review – End of Watch (2012)

End of Watch, 2012.

Directed by David Ayer.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick, David Harbour, Frank Grillo, Maurice Compte and America Ferrera.

SYNOPSIS:

Two young officers are marked for death after confiscating a small cache of money and firearms from the members of a notorious cartel during a routine traffic stop.

Daniel Barber’s 2009 thriller Harry Brown begins as we see phone-camera footage held by youths on a London estate. The video speeds round, as the owner is sat on a motorbike, and the gang-members threaten a woman with her child before accidentally (?) shooting her and then speeding off before the motorbike riders are hit by a truck. The footage represents the story which is about to begin but, on a first-watch, it is easy to believe it is actual footage which shocks you to the core. Does this happen? Has it happened already? How can we live in a world whereby this is possible? It is this same shock and horror you feel when watching End of Watch.

Unlike Harry Brown, whereby the film begins more conventionally after the introduction, End of Watch remains committed to the found-footage element as street cop Taylor (Gyllenhaal) introduces himself and narrates the story before presenting us with an unspecified, but considerable, length of time in the company of himself and Zavala (Michael Peña), his partner as they patrol X13, a district which is initially new to them. By the end of the film, they know much more about this area. They know about the Mexican drug cartels which operate. They learn about the power of Big Evil (Maurice Compte), a major drug-lord. They realise how much danger lurks behind the street corners and curb-side gangs that infest the area.

It is easy to assume that the found-footage element is merely a fashionable filmmaking technique – akin to Cloverfield, Chronicle and Paranormal Activity. But it is much more – harking back to TV programmes such as Police, Camera, Action! whereby the camera sits at the front of the car as it speeds between houses and estates. End of Watch surpasses the usual tropes of found-footage as it makes a point about the use of surveillance and use of videos in the modern world. Indeed, though Taylor carries a camera “for a project”, the Mexican gang-members also carry their own cameras and we are even privy to surveillance caught by Immigration Control of conversations which relate to the district the two police officers work within. But we also realise that director David Ayer doesn’t constrain himself to the ‘footage’ caught by these characters; often, we are a third person as we witness Taylor and his girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) kiss at the end of a date and pan around the couple as they fall on the bed. We know Ayer wants to highlight the reality of the profession but doesn’t want to cut out the personal stories that hide behind the badge for the sake of a technique – it is a bold move, but it pays off as the performances of the lead characters – Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez – are hugely convincing and deeply satisfying. Not for a single second do you think of Gyllenhaal as a Prince of Persia. It is more akin to his skin-head role in Jarhead than of anything he has ever shown us before; could an Oscar nomination be around the corner? I hope so.

The title, End of Watch, refers to a euphemism used in the force to describe an officer / officers killed in the line of duty, so it is timely that this film, with a tragic outcome, comes so soon after the shocking story regarding the murder of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, Police Constables of Manchester. We are shown how challenging and difficult this job truly is – especially in poverty-stricken areas such as South L.A.

Ayer doesn’t shy away from the ambiguous morals police officers are expected to have and, akin to Training Day (written by Ayer), we spend a huge amount of time inside the police vehicle with the cops as they discuss the profession. Zavala’s wrestling and fighting with African-American Tre (Cle Shaheed Sloan) – an act which garners him respect and, as Tre tells him “keepin’ it ‘G’” – isn’t the same as Denzel Washington forcing Ethan Hawke to smoke drugs, though it does question what police officers need to do to gain the trust and respect of those in troubled areas. In a world post-The Wire, it is easy to pass this off as another imitation cashing in on David Simon’s successful TV series. This is much more – it is a shining example of the amazing career of the police officer. The hugely important role they play in society and the ignorance others have when even considering the profession to be an easy job. This is a job that is akin to the military – these men are on the front line and deserve every ounce of respect we can offer. Blistering performances and flawless direction leave you shocked and amazed at the end of the film: Is this the reality of law-enforcement?

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Simon Columb

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