“End of Watch” is an Oscar-worthy movie with an Oscar-worthy performance by Jake Gyllenhall as Brian Taylor, a young LAPD officer. The story is – deliberately – commonplace, in that you’ve seen it all before. Two cops cruising the mean streets together; lots of buddy talk; a few arrests and chases here and there; and a final confrontation with really evil bad guys, who are, naturally running drugs.
David Ayer, who wrote and directed it, and who also gave us the Oscar winning “Training Day” with Denzell Washington, uses the familiarity of the cop story format as a base to build from and to weave his themes in and out of.
He brings a stunning naturalness to the directing and dialog, much of which feels so real, I can only assume there must have been a certain amount of ad libbing throughout. Ayer uses the conceit of a film within a film to add verisimilitude to the flow: we see incidents from a variety of amateur recorded angles – the in-camera viewpoint of the police cruiser the two principals (Gyllenhall and Michael Pena, who we saw in “Million Dollar Baby” and the under-estimated “Lincoln Lawyer”) ride all night in, a hand-held camera Brian (Gyllenhall) uses for some college project he’s working on, spy cameras probing deep into the Sinaloa Drug cartel, even the dealers themselves are forever filming themselves, creating their own urban legends. This often gives the movie a feel of a home movie and it certainly drags the viewer deeper into a world of what Gyllenhall’s character refers to as all the food groups, “drugs, guns and money” than we’ve ever been. It’s as though Ayer is saying to us, you think you know, through glamorized Hollywood, the real world of what these cops do and the nastiness they’re exposed to everyday? Well, let me show you, babe!
And show us he does.
It’s a world of casual violence, drugged out mothers with their kids duck taped in cupboards, corpses, gun-fights… And yet, despite “the horror, the horror” we see through the eyes of our hero cops (and yes, they are our ‘hero’ cops), much of the stunningly scripted dialog is laugh out loud funny as these two, like an old couple, laugh, love, bicker and heckle each other.
The story is essentially about the idea of family: about how people bond and the responsibilities of loyalty and love. Pena is a proud – Mexican – dad and a faithful husband to the woman he met at school. Gyllenhall – to all extent Pena’s brother – is in search of a woman he can actually have a conversation with after the sex is over. The woman he meets, is the engaging Anna Kendrick (who was the young ingénue of “Up in the Air”).
As their relationship deepens, and as we see the two heroes both as cops and as real people (at the beginning Gyllenhall – presciently – tells us “we’re real people, we love, we bleed…”), their out of work world of warmth, love, caring and birthdays enfolds us even as the symbolic end of watch approaches with dread and deadly precision precision.