Friday, October 5, 2012

"End of Watch" Review

"Follow me into the house..."

End of Watch is not a movie.  At least, it's not a movie you and I are used to seeing. End of Watch is an existential thesis on what it is to be a police officer, a gritty tone poem chronicling the lives of two partners.

Written & directed by David Ayer (Training Day, Street Kings), End of Watch tells the tale of Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, two LAPD officers, partners, and best friends.  After being transferred to a new district, their pride and intense devotion to the badge cause them to stumble upon a situation far beyond their pay grade, and must deal with the consequences.

In lesser hands, End of Watch would be a cliché ridden mess, a found footage buddy cop film that belongs in a bargain bin, but Ayer's sensibilities and fidelity to the material elevate it in every possible way.  Make no mistake, the found footage gimmick present in this film was deliberately used, and to great success.  If there's any type of film that can benefit from such techniques, it's the gritty crime drama.  It lends an unmatched authenticity to everything which serves as its bleeding heart.

The film itself is a structural enigma.  It plays more episodically rather than adhering to a traditional three act structure, ebbing and flowing through a narrative peppered with intense takedowns and shootouts connected to quiet moments of conversation between the two leads.  Sure, there's an overarching plot that all comes to a head in the film's final minutes, but most of it plays in the background.  Normally, a structure like this would damage the pacing, but Ayer's script is so smart, snappy, and honest that the quieter moments end up being hilariously entertaining while providing much needed character development.  Not many screenplays can get a way with pausing for a wedding reception.  The final epilogue scene almost plays like Ayer screaming in your face, "Look how great I can write scripts!"  The bravura performances of Gyllenhaal and Peña only enhance these moments.

The dedication to tight focus is one of the film's primary strengths.  In today's "more is more" Hollywood landscape, Ayer understands how to keep things simple, and how to grow the narrative organically from the ground up.  End of Watch tells a very big story, but the storytelling is very limited and reserved, which allows us to experience the plot while also focusing on the most important part: the characters.

End of Watch throws no curveballs at you.  It doesn't pull strings, and it has no surprises up its sleeve.  It doesn't need to.  This is the kind of movie that would be diminished by excessive Shyamalan twisting and convoluted plotting.  This is a very straightforward narrative, as is the point.  From the opening narration, you know exactly what you are going to get.  It's a literal and figurative mission statement, both for character and film, from human to symbol, so shakespearean in its pomp, yet so cutting as a reality.  From early on, you know how things are going to play out, and the film isn't trying to hide it from you.  Anyone familiar with law enforcement and knows what the term "end of watch" actually signifies can attest to that.

The film doesn't want to play coy, it wants to shove itself into your heart and shake it, and it wants to do it in the realest, rawest way it possibly can.  What makes End of Watch such a success is not the twistings and turnings of its plot, it's the deliberate plausibility of the events that unfold.  It is the waiting for the other shoe to drop where most of the suspense arises.

In Taylor and Zayala, Ayer has created some of the most brilliantly realized and universally relatable characters to don a badge in recent memory.  You actually feel like you know these guys, mostly because you do.  They are your friends. They are your cousins.  They are your brothers.  They are your fathers.   Their families are your families.  They are a true representation of the modern cop, and it's our inherent connection to them that allows the film to punch you in the gut.

And boy, does it ever.

Nothing is laid on thicker than it needs to be.  Nothing is overblown for the sake of entertainment. Nothing is "Hollywoodized".  The film revels in the subtleties of its most shocking and heartbreaking moments.  When a character says "watch your six", they mean it, and the film means it in so many ways.  Life is about what we make of ourselves, but equally our ability to care for and protect those who are close to us.  We're in it together.  Who are we really without each other?  The most important speech in the entire film is four words, and rings more potent and disarming than if it were four thousand.

End of Watch doesn't just paint a picture of two cops beating the bad guys.  It provides a looking glass into the things that drive us.  The need for love and companionship, the trust and devotion to those people, and the pride and purpose given by a cause worth fighting for.

And it is worth fighting for.

82% = ***1/2 = "Amazing"


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