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End of Watch

September 23, 2012
End of Watch

There’s a common explanation for negative attitudes on the part of police officers, especially where sensitive racial issues are concerned: they only ever interact with people at their worst, so naturally they get a skewed perspective on the communities they patrol. End of Watch seems to start from the premise that the solution is for us all to adopt the same skewed perspective.

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike “Z” Zavala (Michael Peña) are partners in a South Central Los Angeles police district, just coming back from being exonerated in an on-duty shooting. We follow along through their lives over the next couple months, almost entirely from the context of their patrols, but also with some glimpses into their home lives: Z is a family man, married right out of high school to Gabby (Natalie Martinez), while Taylor was in the Marines and is in the process of settling down with Janet (Anna Kendrick).

We’re introduced to some other officers in their division. Davis and Orozco (Cody Horn and America Ferrera) are another pair of partners we see a few times, but we learn little about them besides a wasted reference to Orozco’s past. We pick up a little more about Van Hauser (David Harbour), a jaded long-time officer, but his warnings about the larger LAPD end up just another red herring. The sergeant (Frank Grillo) even has his own share of loose ends. The script keeps pointing over and over to these other stories, and frustratingly refuses to follow up on any of them.

Vérité filmmaking is gimmicky at the best of times, but I’m growing a special kind of disdain for cheap, half-assed vérité like writer/director David Ayer uses here. Much of the nauseating shakycam is explained away as Taylor’s project for a filmmaking class he’s taking as a gen-ed requirement for his pre-law degree, and there’s a running gag of various other officers and superiors giving him trouble for recording them. On the other hand, no explanation is given for why gangs are carrying around their own camcorders, but we need these scenes in order to provide any sort of continuity between the handful of incidents involving the local Curbside gang — headed up by “Big Evil” (Maurice Compte) and “La La” (Yahira “Flakiss” Garcia) — a local pawn of the Sinaloa cartel. And half the shots don’t correspond to any explainable camera at all, so why even bother with the gimmick if you aren’t even going to stick with it?

The one part of this movie that works is the relationship between Taylor and Z. Gyllenhaal and Peña are excellent when they banter back and forth in their patrol car, and they manage to bring their characters to life. In fact, a lot of their dialogue feels improvised, which might explain a lot; not being bound by the rest of the script they’re free to rise above it.

But this is far from enough to salvage this unformed mess of a story and its simplistic, authoritarian worldview. From the opening monologue, it divides the world into good and evil, and places the police in the realm of unquestioned good. Hispanic characters — other than Z and his wife, positioned as “two of the good ones” — are amoral gangsters, while black characters are an increasingly irrelevant joke. The violence and spectacle is exciting, but doesn’t make any sort of case for police officers except to those already in the authoritarian camp. For my model of a police officer, I’ll stick with John C. Reilly’s character in Magnolia.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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