Vaguely recalling David Ayer’s Training Day, I assumed I knew where his latest film, End of Watch, was heading when two Los Angeles cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) were dispatched to an African-American suspect’s house. I expected the film to be about dirty cops working in a corrupt department who attempt to break out of a vicious cycle defined by long hours, shitty pay, never-ending paperwork, and political backbiting through racially-motivated violence. Thankfully, the film proved my assumption incorrect. When the suspect (Cle Shaheed Sloan) calls Officer Zavala (Peña) a barrage of racial slurs, the Mexican officer does not respond with a nightstick and the N-word. Instead, Zavala removes his police gear and tells the suspect that he can leave the house peacefully or they can duke it out. However, Zavala tells the suspect, “If I win, you put the handcuffs on yourself.” They fight; Zavala wins. The aftermath of the fight is defined by mutual respect, to the credit of Ayer, the film, and its characters. The suspect puts the cuffs on and Zavala does not try to turn the confrontation into a trumped up charge.
Like The Wire, End of Watch is best understood as a drama about fairly decent cops, rendered through the lens of Italian Neorealism. The film is constructed out of “found footage,” a formal conceit that is motivated (for the most part) by Officer Taylor’s film class assignment. Thus, the film is formally unrefined; it wears its handheld, grainy, and digital aesthetic as a badge of honor. To take the Neorealism comparison further, the film was shot by Roman Vasyanov in the less-than-desirable parts of Los Angeles and some of the characters are played by former gang members, such as Sloan. Moreover, just as Neorealism attempted to capture the non-events of everyday life, End of Watch has a fairly aimless narrative. It spends about an hour of its running time following Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Zavala as an episode of Cops would. We watch as they help a woman track down her missing children, follow up on a noise complaint, and uncover a human trafficking operation. The final discovery eventually provides a motor to the plot, as the operation was linked to a Mexican drug cartel that decides to put a bounty on Taylor and Zavala.
However, Ayer never allows this narrative decision to become a way out of film’s Neorealist preoccupations, because Taylor and Zavala never fully comprehend the plot against them. When they are vaguely warned that they are being targeted by local gangs for their good police work, Taylor shrugs it off with the response, “We’re cops. Everyone wants to kill us.” The cops are never in a position to understand what the hell is going on (they aren’t detectives, as we’re continuously reminded) and the only reason we are able to get vague strokes of the antagonists’ actions is because Ayer occasionally allows Taylor’s “found footage” structure to become hyperlinked to the digital cameras of other characters. Despite their generically untraditional cluelessness, we still care deeply about Taylor and Zavala, thanks to the performances of Gyllenhaal and Peña. These are not the cops motivated by power, greed, or revenge that we find in every other police drama. This is a film about good cops whose partnership, partners (a difficult to recognize—and that’s a compliment to the depiction of her character—America Ferrera appears as another officer), and families (Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez play their significant others), drive them. End of Watch never demonizes or (overly) moralizes; it provides us with a view of police life in the raw.