Hand held camera films seem to be the ‘in thing’ these days. The horror genre over uses it (Paranormal Activity, Rec, Day of the Dead, etc) and even the Monster movie has started to dabble with it (Cloverfield, District 9, Monsters). Now we are seeing it in drama, with David Ayer’s End of Watch. And it works brilliantly. The films LAPD setting is its McGuffin; the real story lies with the relationship between the two main characters, Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña). Not only is it aided by the hand held camera work, but the sensational acting of the two pulls the audience in to their brotherly bond.
However, the film’s mature understanding of the use of the camera means that they sometimes strive away from the ‘Cinema Verité’ effect and turn more conventional. This helps as nearly all the key points in the film have quick, violent and gritty scenes, meaning the audience does not miss a thing.
What I enjoy about Ayer films (most of all during End of Watch) is how he controls the narrative so tightly that we never get bored, we never get lost, and we always relate to the characters. The film focuses on the day to day lives of these two officers, but also shows the stories of some Hispanic and African-American gangsters. Three different stories, all inter-related, yet it never seems to get tangled up in its own narrative web.
Ayer doesn’t hold back in showing the audience the brutal side of the streets of Los Angeles. He grew up in South Central, LA, a notoriously rough neighbourhood, and his knowledge of the dark and monstrous criminal world has led his films to reflect that knowledge. End of Watch forces the audience to see some horrifying images; knives sticking out of people’s eyes, cut up bits of bodies, children tied up and gagged by their parents. But we watch, and we stare at these gruesome scenes because we are (at least for the duration of the film) living what Taylor and Zavala are living.
Ayer has written and directed a master piece here, Gyllenhaal and Peña have given unforgettable performances, and together with the narrative twists and turns, its unconventional camera style and plot structure, there is surely a contender, somewhere, for an Oscar nomination.