End of Watch (2012)
The question that lives in the mind some hours after leaving the cinema is what constitutes entertainment. If I wanted to see real life, I could sit on a street corner and watch it walk and drive by. Admittedly it wouldn’t be as exciting as in this film, but it would pass the time. So I just spent 109 minutes watching two youngish officers in End of Watch (2012) patrol around some of the more violent streets in South Central LA. Although it starts off with a car chase and, from the camera mounted on the black-and-white’s windscreen, we see the occupants of the chased car emerge with guns blazing when they are cornered, this is not completely typical of their days. Yes, there are moments of action but, equally, they simply drive around and keep the peace. This means telling people to turn down the volume on their music if they’re having a party, or remonstrating with an angry man who’s been threatening the mailman. Their view of the world is passive-aggressive. The law of search-and-seizure does not permit random stops. The team has therefore developed a number of strategies to tiptoe around the law with pretexts for the stop. It’s the same with entering houses without a search warrant. If they are able to see a possible offence from outside, they force their way in. Otherwise, they simply drive around, drink endless coffees and Red Bulls, and talk.
It’s the talking that features. If I was asked what the film is about, I would say the screenwriter/director David Ayer is interested in studying them as individuals and a team. They’ve been together for seven or eight years. Brian Murphy (Jake Gyllenhaal) was a marine. Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) is a second-generation Mexican, not as well educated, but passionate about his work. Despite their cultural differences, they have grown close. Unofficially, they relate to each other as brothers with Brian adopted into the extended Mexican kin group. In the cliché favoured by the so-called buddy movies, they’re like family.
So the question remains. Is it entertaining to spend almost two hours watching two men drive around in a car together, emerging every now and again to exchange fire with local criminals or save kids from a burning building? Ah yes, you see the catch. There are moments of excitement in the midst of the pervasive boredom of their lives. If they wanted, they could game the system and never get into any situation where their lives might be at risk. Only their feet or backsides would grow calluses. But, whether it’s their professionalism or a desire to “make a difference”, they always seem to be leading from the front. Sadly, this means they are noticed by the local representatives of a Colombian drug cartel. First, they tell them the music is too loud, then they make one of their stops of a “suspected” vehicle and find a small quantity of drugs and some gold-plated weapons. Then there’s a house full of people. But it’s the house they enter near the end that causes the real problem. They actually chose this job because it looked really boring. A daughter who was worried about her mother. Yes, such public service jobs always carry that extra element of commitment.
Anyway, back to this recurrent question. . . Is a film that shares in the boredom of its characters’ lives a legitimate form of entertainment? No matter how much we learn about these fine, upstanding members of the community, no matter how much we might come to empathise with them, they are doing a shitty and dangerous job. At any moment, some individual high on drugs might attack them and get in a lucky blow, a gang member with anger management problems might shoot one in the head. As we sit in the cinema, we’re in no better position than the wives who have to stay at home and pretend their husbands will come home safe at the end of each shift. Well, we’re probably worse off than the wives because we have to watch the dark shadows collect at the end of the screen as they drive around this neighbourhood. So what does that make the message of this film?
I think End of Watch as a phrase says it all. We have the chance to watch the lives and deaths of some police officers in LA. As the credits roll, it’s the end of this opportunity to watch. If there is a message, it’s that there will always be some people who will survive to carry on the fight. Some may retire from the force because they are disillusioned or afraid, some because they are permanently injured, and some because they are dead. But so long as we have a need for law enforcement, there will always be some people with enough courage to stand up for righteousness and carry on the fight. It could be inspiring but, in this particular film, there’s not a shred of passion in promoting propaganda to encourage us to sleep well in our beds. There’s a dry, factual quality to the delivery and, to be honest, I was mostly bored. The inclusion of a few body parts and a little heroism fails to prevent the general feeling of depression. You can admire men like this and bewail the awfulness of a society that allows itself to degenerate into this state, but films like this accentuate the negative without any obvious purpose. David Ayer could have delivered a film to provoke outrage and foster a political desire to leave the cinema and exert pressure on government to change. But I just felt like giving up and, despite the likeability of Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, it’s not entertaining. As a final thought on the structure of the film. Much of the action is delivered through discovered footage from various cameras, some of which are part of a personal log being kept by Brian as a part of a part-time degree course. But there’s no consistency as to when the camera will switch from on-board and hand-held to third person. This is distracting and fails in what I take to be an intertexuality attempt to give the film some credibility as cinéma verité.