Sunday, September 23, 2012

"End of Watch"

 4.5 / 5 

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers his best performance to date, matched at every turn by Michael Pena in the harrowing and vivid stunner End of Watch, a movie that suffers only from the overbearing conceit of using a "found-footage" shaky-cam style that director David Ayer struggles to keep believable.

In every other way, End of Watch is exemplary, and a stark reminder that Gyllenhaal may be one of the most underrated actors working in film today.  As beat cop Brian Taylor, assigned with his partner Mike Zavala to keep a non-existent peace in crime-ridden South Central Los Angeles, Gyllenhaal is the star in every respect, but shares an easy and comfortable rapport with Pena -- the best early scenes are those in which we see how close the two partners have become: They are brothers, they are partners, and maybe even more than they are with their respective spouses, they are soulmates.

For its first half, End of Watch simply presents the various calls they respond to, depicting with unflinching realism how impossible it is to be a "peace officer" in a place that does not want peace.  Slowly, the story meanders into a cohesive whole, but by the time it finally does, you'd be just as content to watch these two work.

This is, we suppose, what police work is really all about: cruising the streets, responding to calls that are both mundane and shockingly complex -- and interrelated.  A gangland drive-by shooting, a strung-out mother convinced her babies are missing, an elderly woman whose daughter says she has not seen her for days.  The work they do is fraught with peril, and they do exactly the work they need to do -- some of it is heroic, but neither Taylor nor Zavala understands what a hero is, or how a hero should feel; these men do their jobs, that's all.

They have personal lives, and they talk about them in between calls. They reveal that they are cops first, and people second -- but real people, with rich lives into which we get tantalizing glimpses.

For the first half of End of Watch, maybe more, it's hard to know where it's all going -- but it is going somewhere, to a place that is as inevitable as it is agonizing.  There is a plot, it's a compelling one, but it's anchored by the only thing that really matters in End of Watch: the relationship between then men. They aren't committed to their jobs, they are their jobs, and like few fictional films in the past couple of decades, End of Watch effortlessly reminds us that police officers are doing their jobs, too, to the best of their ability.  They're hampered by the system, by jaded and angry co-workers, by a set of rules too byzantine for even a longtime cop to truly understand.

And they live in a world far beyond the comfort and confines of their own homes.  Through seemingly unconnected ways, they innocently stumble into something far bigger than the every day work of responding to calls and filling out paperwork, and that something is what propels the film's final third -- expertly hinted at during the opening, harrowingly real by the end.

This is an admirable, gut-wrenching, visceral movie; it envelopes you in a world it's unlikely many of us will ever see, a world that, as much as we'd like to believe otherwise, exists.

A good portion of End of Watch consists of Taylor and Zavala talking as they cruise from one call to another, and it's to the enormous credit of writer-director Ayers that it's the central relationship we care about most, not the mechanics of a crime scene, which so many cop films forget.  It's raw, it's powerful and it's finely wrought, played perfectly and shot with ...

Well, there's the film's only major flaw.  End of Watch contrives a story that Taylor (Gyllenhaal) is shooting video of his work for a class project as part of his Pre-Law studies.  But how many people can carry video cameras?  Are the bad guys so obsessed with video that they have a camera present all the time?  One key scene is shown by using a third-party camera, one that has never figured into the story before and won't again.  In the few shots that can't be covered by the "found-footage" structure, there's an omniscient camera, available when it suits the story.

Your tolerance for End of Days may seem in part by limited by your willingness to give into the found-footage concept.  Fortunately, the story becomes so riveting, it scarcely matters -- though it would have been an interesting experience to use more mainstream techniques.

There's also a wonderfully disconnected quality to the opening 40 minutes or so.  Some of the stories in End of Watch seem important, and turn out to be; others are used simply to show the interplay between and the common sense of goal these man have.

End of Watch ultimately ranks one of the very best movies I've seen so far this year -- but might have been even better that it used more traditional photography techniques.

That's a quibble, really.  At the heart of End of Watch are the private moments between these two men; we've seen them in action, we understand why these guys love each ofther -- and so much. The best compliment I can pay to End of Watch is: I'd sure like to know more about these guys.  They're wonderfully drawn characters, with a sophistication and ease seen in far too few recent films.

These cops do their work and sometimes even get medals for it.  But the medals aren't ther purpose. They believe in their jobs, they are defined by them, but they can't imagine being a real "hero."  Heroes aren't beat cops, but, as End of Watch prove -- some beat cops are more heroic than we will ever know.

Profane, violent, disturbing and compulsively watchable, End of Watch is not to be missed.

Viewed Sept. 23, 2012 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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