Dec 4, 2012

End of Watch [15]

Dir: David Ayer
Like Harsh Times and Training Day (which he wrote) before it, David Ayer's latest is a film that I can't help feeling that I should like more than I do.  There are good things here, great things even, but - just as I've felt he has in the past - Ayer seems to actively work against me enjoying his film as a whole.

End of Watch has very little in terms of an overarching story, rather it's throughline comes from its two lead characters; LA street cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena).  The film is largely made up of Taylor's own footage (which apparently he's shooting for a pre-law college course, mentioned in the film's first scene and then never referred to again), and we stay with Taylor and Zavala in almost every scene, often riding along with them through cameras on the car dashboard or mini cameras pinned to their uniforms.  The film unfolds essentially as a series of loosely linked vignettes as the two go about their work.

There is one thing in End of Watch that you just can't argue with; the quality and chemistry in the leading performances.  Gyllenhaal and Pena are both great here, and it's especially gratifying to see Pena - a talented actor who has never quite got the notice he deserves - grab this part with both hands.  The contrasts between the the two are nicely drawn both by Ayer's screenplay and by the actors, who have a real sense of being old and trusted friends.  Gyllenhaal's may be the better role, as it's Brian who changes more during the film.  Early on we hear him lay out his dating timetable, but when he gets together with Janet (Anna Kendrick), we can see him grow up.  These performances make the many scenes in which we see Brian and Mike just bullshitting with each other as they drive between calls the heart of and by far the best thing in the film, and that just makes the problems with the rest of it more frustrating and disappointing.

David Ayer is 44, not that I'd believe it from his writing.  Ayer has some strengths as a writer; the two main characters are well developed here, and he's got some colourful supporting characters too, but his dialogue lets him down.  Ayer writes dialogue like a 13 year old who has just seen his first Tarantino film, and thus discovered the F word.  Anyone who read this site, listens to my podcast or reads my Twitter feed will know I'm hardly shy of deploying profanity myself, so this isn't about being prudish, it's about two more fundamental things.  

First of all, when all your characters talk in the same way it becomes hard to distinguish between them, and thus difficult to relate to them.  Luckily we spend a lot of time with Brian and Mike, and Pena and Gyllehaal are good enough overcome this to a large degree, but the other characters all blend into an F bomb laden mass.  The other problem is that it's just boring to listen to.  David Mamet, for instance, uses swearing, and particularly the F word, creatively and even if he uses it a lot, every one is well placed.  Ayer's characters don't use it like this.  At certain points literally every other word in the scene is Fuck, and for me it popped me right out of the scene, because I'm no longer thinking about the characters, instead I'm thinking I should buy David Ayer a thesaurus for Christmas.

It might be easier to look past these issues with the dialogue if End of Watch were easier to look at.  Ayer uses some tropes of the 'found footage' technique here and also some more straightforward 'shakycam' techniques, which take a third person view of the film.  There are problems with both techniques.  For me, when you're using a found footage technique in your film, it is important to contextualise it; to give the audience an idea of what, exactly, they are watching.  

Ayer tries to do this with that throwaway comment in the opening scene, but he uses footage from so many other sources; dashboard cameras, cameras being used by gang members and an outside perspective - the filmmaker's, never given context - that the found footage conceit goes out the window for me, particularly because with all these sources colliding in an edited form there is no sense of what we're actually supposed to be watching, or where the footage that isn't from Brian has been obtained.  Is it a TV show about Brian and Mike?  Is it something put together by the Department?  We never know, and again, that just forced my attention away from the story and on to the technique.

However, the 'shakycam' is the big problem.  For me, it renders the film almost unwatchable, because however good the story is, however engaging the drama is, however intense the action is at any given moment, it means that I can barely see it.  Every single frame outside the front seat of Brian and Mike's car (so about 85% of the film) is shot with a camera that barely comes to rest for more than a second.  I get why this technique is employed.  The argument is always that it puts you in the thick of the action with the characters, but I've only ever found that to be the case in isolated scenes (the opening scene of Joe Canahan's Narc, for instance).  In every key scene of the film I felt this technique took away from the drama, and particularly in key setpieces in the film's second half, one involving a fire, the other a gunfight.  I get that Ayer wants to plunge you into the characters confusion in the situation, but it's possible to do that without shaking the camera like an epileptic on cocaine and making sure we can only tell what's happening in a tiny handful of the shots.  If you find this engaging, fine, to me it feels like an excuse, like a director saying 'I don't know how to shoot this, so just shake the camera a lot and maybe nobody will notice'.

With a dialogue focused rewrite - to make it less the profane drone it often feels like - and a more sedate camera technique I think I might have liked End of Watch a lot.  Okay, it still wouldn't have been very original, but it certainly might have engaged as a cop movie just as it sometimes does as a film about male friendship.  Ultimately though a screenplay that is thumpingly tedious whenever it cuts away from Brian and Mike as private people (whether together on the job or with their wives) and an actively irritating shooting style conspire to mean that I can't quite recommend it, despite two of the better leading actor performances of the year.

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