Critics are loving End of Watch, but sometimes you have to be the rebellious one. Maybe I’m the proverbial “loose cannon” this time!
I find it interesting that I’ve reviewed two found footage films back-to-back, my last being V/H/S, and it has caused me to meditate a bit on the genre as a whole. Like all storytelling devices, found forage has it’s advantages and drawbacks. It can be difficult to tell stories from such a limited perspective, and in many ways it can destroy the magic of what makes a lot of traditional cinema so great in the first place; well-composed cinematography, grandiose musical score, and the ability to tell the story from multiple perspectives. But at best, it offers a sense of realism to what you’re viewing; the belief that an ordinary Joe like me happened to film something amazing, be it a ghost, superhero, or towering alien destroying the Statue of Liberty. For all of the problems I had with V/H/S, it actually handled this realism pretty well–my issues with the film generally were about the likability of the characters rather than the belief in what I was watching was convincing or not.
Thus you would think that a found footage movie without all the supernatural, alien, or ghostly stuff would have an easier time with believability, but unfortunately here’s where End of Watch fails. While suspension of disbelief is always required when watching a movie, just because you’re making a found footage flick doesn’t mean you get a free pass at all the other stuff. Simply put, the cops in End of Watch don’t act like good cops; they are spoiled schoolchildren with a god complex. While I’m well aware that this can be the case with many policemen (especially in the LAPD), one would think that portraying the two leads this way might be a set-up to show their hubris and downfall as the film progresses. Storytelling 101 tells you that a character needs to chance over the course of the narrative, hopefully learning something in the process. Or if the tale is tragic, then they don’t learn and pay the price, and we the viewers learn something. But policemen Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), despite being rash, meat-headed, and foolish, are ultimately toted as heroes by the end. While both Gyllenhaal and Pena give strong performances, their characters are ultimately the types of policemen I think ought to be purged from the force.
Aside from breaking protocol and abusing their power, one of the biggest gaffs the two characters make is the specific act of filming their on-the-job workplace anyway, and this is where the movie really lost me. Taylor says early on that he’s decided to shoot everything on a digital camera for a film class he’s taking (a film class we never really see, by the way, which is rather sloppy). Obviously nearly all found footage movies tend to have this moment where a character looks directly at the camera and explains why they are shooting everything. It’s always a bit annoying, but a necessary hump to explain the concept. Unfortunately this movie continuously shows other cops reprimanding Taylor for using his camera in practically every scene–and I agreed with them! Police officers shouldn’t be making home movies while working, especially when their lives or the lives of citizens could be on the line! Protagonists have to be sympathetic, but it’s choices like these that make Taylor and Zavala come off as an insubordinate goofballs.
In addition, found footage films need the necessary information for us to believe the story being told has finally been edited and assembled for a reason. In Cloverfield we were watching a top-secret document about a monster destroying New York. In Chronicle the story was important because these ordinary kids became superheroes, so of course somebody would have put all their footage together. V/H/S had the MacGuffin of all the characters searching the creepy building for videotapes that could score them some serious cash. If some outside third party has gone to all the trouble the edit the film and, in the case of End of Watch, even add score, then it stands for reason the footage holds some large significance. It’s the same reason anyone goes to any movie: “why is your story worth telling?” As much as I hate to say it, the story in End of Watch isn’t extraordinary enough for us to believe it was assembled for any particular reason. Even if the filmmakers were trying to give us a routine “realistic inside look” at the police force, there still needs to be some logical reason their home movie ultimately wound up on the big screen, and yet none is given. Maybe one of the cops had a cousin who had just bought a copy of Final Cut Pro and wanted to test it out?
This isn’t the only found footage “rule” the film breaks to undermine pulling off its initial concept. Throughout the film there is a barrage of hand-held footage that clearly couldn’t have been shot by any of the characters inhabiting the world. The whole point of a found footage film is to believe one of the characters (or several) were shooting everything on-screen, and when that viewpoint is broken the realism is lost. God’s-eye view filmmaking works in a third-person narrative (the traditional POV for films), but when the rule is broken in a first-person narrative the illusion is torn apart. In a found footage movie the closest one can get to god’s-eye perspective is a wayward security or traffic light camera. To be fair, most found footage movies cheat about this a little bit, and some do away with it altogether and succeed brilliantly. District 9 starts out like a pseudo-documentary, but eventually just becomes a third-person action adventure with a bit of helicopter footage thrown into the mix. But I believe District 9 manages to succeed because the world is so immersive, the story so creative, and the characters so engaging that the viewer begins to forget about the documentary footage entirely. In that film the doc-footage is used as a doorway into the world, but not the ultimate storytelling device.
However End of Watch not only doesn’t have as engaging a story as District 9, it breaks its illusion in an even more obvious way as well. As mentioned before, the film continuously hammers home the fact that these cops are SHOOTING ALL THEIR FOOTAGE in practically every scene so that when the rule is broken, it is distractingly noticeable. There are very private sequences where Taylor first spends the night with his girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) and all I could wonder was, “What sicko is filming these two while they’re making out for the first time?” Normally that isn’t a problem in a movie, but because we are constantly reminded that all the footage has been recorded by one of the characters, we are always thrown for a loop when the movie shatters its own internal logic.
I actually believe End of Watch would have succeeded far better had it not been done as a found footage story, because it’s lack of consistency was the film’s biggest drawback. But as I touched on before, even if the found footage stuff worked (it didn’t), when stripped of its shiny metal casing, underneath there still is a film with a fairly by-the-numbers story: some (bad-at-their-job!) cops accidentally stumble into the crosshairs of an evil cartel (mainly because, again, these cops are breaking the rules and bad at their job), and so the cartel comes after them. A basic plot isn’t necessarily bad if executed well, but the first half of End of Watch meanders so much that I started to get bored. The early scenes are meant to be eye-openers into what the day-to-day life of a beat cop is like, but instead it’s just a series of strung-together scenes watching Taylor and Zavala screw up. The plot eventually comes together after the halfway mark, but at that point it’s just an excuse to propel the movie into the final act so it can wrap itself up.
My final issue with the film may be more of an issue with Hollywood (and the culture of America) as a whole, but I took serious issue with how violence was presented. Without giving specifics away, let’s just say it is definitely portrayed in the ending as “cool” that a bunch of cops are able to blast away at a bunch of gang-bangers. Policemen are supposed to be keepers of the peace, yet here they’re almost glorified angels of death. It may sound silly that I took issue with this considering I’m someone who is likely to put The Raid: Redemption on my top ten list for the year, but to me it’s an issue of what the intention behind the violence was trying to achieve. The Raid: Redemption isn’t really a movie about glamorizing violence–it’s too distorted for that. It’s really a movie that wants to give the viewer a supercharged rush of adrenaline and marvel at some fantastic martial arts choreography. Nobody walks out of The Raid thinking what they saw was a realistic portrayal of what goes on in the daily lives of cops in Indonesia; they just think, “Man, that rocked!” Even a movie like Crank (one of my favorite guilty pleasures) while hitting more of a gray area, is still a flick where the violence is intended to entertain, not provoke. But because End of Watch tries to present itself as a realistic portrayal of policemen whom we are expected to admire, this ending really felt twisted and wrong. I don’t want to stand on my soapbox too long here, but I do think the role of violence in Hollywood movies is a very complicated and intriguing one, and I would be thrilled to see what (civil!) discussion might transpire in the comments section below. Am I overreacting here? What do you think? Critics are eating End of Watch up at the moment, so if I’m wrong about any of the points I’ve made about this film, I’d love to know why!
I’m happy found footage as a storytelling device is becoming more mainstream, because it is certainly a feasible way for low-budget filmmakers to find their voice. But for all potential filmmakers out there, remember that this format is not an excuse to be sloppy. Regardless of the formalistic choices you choose to use, at the end of the day you’ll still need a great story and logical reason for all the choices you’ve made in not only your screenplay, but how your movie has been shot and edited as well. I don’t think End of Watch pulled it off…maybe you can do better!