End Of Watch (2012)

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, David Harbour, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, Cody Horn, Shondrella Avery, Jaime FitzSimons, Cle Shaheed Sloan, Richard Cabral, Diamonique, Maurice Compte, Yahira Garcia, Manny Jimenez, Jr., Nikki Nicholle Barreras.

Director: David Ayer
Rating: R (for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use.)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $15.9 Million

Exclusive Media, EFF-Hedge Fund Films, Le Gribsi, Crave Films, Envision Entertainment Corporation, and Open Road Films.

Written by: David Ayer.

This review was originally published at The Rogue Valley Messenger.
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(out of 5 stars)

Presumably like most movie fans, I have long since become exhausted with The Found Footage Film.  This gimmick has bled over into more than just horror films, and this year alone we have had science fiction (Chronicle) and an abhorrent teen comedy (Project X) attempt to keep the subgenre relevant.  This recent unrelenting wave of found-footage faux-documentaries emanates largely from the success of the recent Paranormal Activity franchise, which launched in 2009, although 1999′s iconic Blair Witch Project has certainly inspired many of these found-footage projects as well.

End Of Watch is writer/director David Ayer’s one foot in/one foot out attempt at making a found footage film and despite not truly committing to which type of narrative structure he desires for his film, Ayer (Street Kings, Training Day (as writer)) has crafted a stunning surpriseFeaturing two strong performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, End Of Watch is gritty, strong, and compulsively entertaining, with an emotional payload and lasting power I never saw coming.

Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) is a police officer with the LAPD, who works alongside his partner and best friend, Mike Zavala (Pena).  Taylor is also taking film classes at night and has decided to shoot an on-the-job documentary about his everyday interactions and experiences as a cop in the troubled landscape of South Central Los Angeles.  Taylor is incessant with his camera, capturing conversations with other officers, random events in the office, and most alarmingly to his fellow officers, crime scene footage.  He outfits himself and Zavala with cameras which look like lapel pins on the front of their uniforms and as viewers, we see a constant crosscutting between uniform cameras, Taylor’s handheld digital videocam, and occasional shots from the aforementioned dashboard camera.  Curiously though, End Of Watch steps outside of those limitations and also incorporates a more traditional style of filmmaking, which both muddies the waters a bit but also succeeds in spite the film’s initial construction.

End Of Watch unfolds over the course of several months as we see Taylor meet and fall in love with the free-spirited Janet (Anna Kendrick) and observe Zavala ready to start a family with his wife, Gabby (Natalie Martinez).  As we warm to their bond, a troubling and swirling storm emerges on the horizon.  Officers Taylor and Zavala stumble onto a vicious drug cartel’s emergence in and around their beat.  Advised to stand down on their discoveries, Taylor and Zavala try and live their lives and do their jobs.  Soon and perhaps predictably, worlds collide, events add up, and  the two officers find themselves back on the trail of the cartel’s actions and happenings.

Anchoring the film are the performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena.  They develop instant chemistry, absorbing into their roles, and making us believe that they are completely and 100% Officers Taylor and Zavala.  Their chemistry together is crucial because David Ayer takes us through some unspeakable horrors and intense encounters that are so organic and carefully orchestrated that we got lost in scenes and moments, attempting to decipher what is going on at the same time Officers Taylor and Zavala are desperately trying to do the same.  Whether it is a woman confused and distraught over her missing children, burning buildings, peculiar findings outside of a home, or the shocking uncovering of horrific crime scenes, Taylor and Zavala see some gutwrenching things but retain a professionalism that you want to believe exists for officers in the throes of these kinds of untenable environments.

The actors portraying the members of the Mexican drug cartel are better than your average caricatured gangbangers, with Ayer providing key moments to let us familiarize ourselves with their motivations and wants.  This does not make them any less frightening or intimidating, quite the contrary, but we at least have some principles defined for us that go beyond the stereotypical paintbrushing most films like this willfully utilize.  Ayer wants us to go beyond appearances and see what we find.  We may be uneasy and anxious in doing so, but he recognizes that for End Of Watch to deliver in the ways he wants it to, we must open ourselves up to these unsavory individuals, their desperation, recklessness, and impulsive and senseless behaviors.

As I reflect back on End Of Watch, I find myself becoming a bigger and bigger fan of the film.  Anna Kendrick shines as Janet, the woman who may nab Taylor’s heart for good, and Cody Horn (Magic Mike) and an unrecognizable America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty”) make an intriguing young female cop tandem, there to support Taylor and Zavala at the drop of a hat.  And as accomplished as Ayer’s screenplay is, and as much as he tries to have it all ways with his narrative approach, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are so genuine and authentic with these performances that the film simply envelopes you and pushes you to the edge of your seat. 

Refreshingly, End Of Watch never panders to its audience like other police procedural films or television cop shows tend to do.  David Ayer draws the same conflicted emotions within his viewers as he does with his cast and as a result, End Of Watch is riveting and intense.  We are there.  We are peering around the corner.  We are gasping for breath.  We are trying to make sense out of situations that make no sense.  When End Of Watch concluded, I was notably moved, wildly impressed, and exhilarated in equal measure.  While unflinching in its content and certainly cringe-inducing for those sensitive to violence, End Of Watch is terrific and should not be missed.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • While Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic and absorbs into Brian Taylor, Michael Pena’s performance continues to roll around and play fresh in my mind in the days and weeks after seeing the film.  The acting here is largely top shelf across-the-board, but Pena is truly exceptional.
  • Fans of cop dramas and police procedural films will love this, but likely more so because it is a fresh and original approach to a formula that gets trotted out multiple times per year.
  • David Ayer has seen success before as a director and screenwriter, but putting both components together here, with this cast, Ayer emerges as a filmmaker to seek out and follow.
NO
  • As much as I found to love and praise here, I still struggle with the narrative schizophrenia that never really disappears.  At times, the whole found footage approach seems cumbersome and forced and I still cannot help but wonder if the film even needed to be framed that way at all.  It is what it is of course, but some will be dismayed by the structure.
  • Not for the squeamish, End Of Watch does not skimp on attempting to portray realistic scenes of violence and unsettling discoveries.
  • As corrupt as the LAPD have been in the past, or seem to be perpetually, even I have to acknowledge that there is no way a police officer would be able to videocam every moment he is on shift.  That perhaps requires the biggest willing suspension of disbelief for viewers to buy in on what End Of Watch is selling here.
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