By Daniel Garrett
End of Watch
Directed by David Ayer
It is always good to see Michael Pena, especially when Pena has a character of complexity and consciousness, as he does in End of Watch, in which Pena costars with Jake Gyllenhaal, the two playing Los Angeles policemen who answer diverse calls—about lost children, drug dealing, fights, and elderly people who have lost touch with family and may be distressed. Pena is Miguel or Mike, a Mexican officer whose life revolves around his wife and family, and who is full of stories about that life; and Gyllenhaal is Brian, an ambitious, bright young American man of European descent who thinks he, finally, has found a girl he can talk to as well as go to bed with. Brian, also, hopes to become a detective, and that is part of how he looks at cases—he wants to identify deeper roots, larger patterns. The Pena character is loving, moral, and practical, the film’s spiritual center; and the Gyllenhaal character is its drive, its will—his ambition shapes where they go. End of Watch is a dynamic, quick-moving film, full of the little shocks in a policeman’s day: after seeing, as the officers do, a crack addict who does not know or has forgotten that her missing children are tied up in the closet, or visiting a private home in which butchered human body parts are flung around, it is easier to understand why some metropolitan policemen seem cynical and tough. The friendship—rooted in mutual dependability, honesty, and humor—of the two policemen helps to keep them sane and safe, but their bond means also that when one takes a risk the other is at risk too. The life of a policeman is an existential one—a life of consciousness and danger rubbing roughly against routine and rules; and the film, which can seem simple in its realism, makes that vivid.
Brian and Mike have a great friendship, the bond of men who do difficult work together, but the most humane aspects of the policemen’s lives may be their relationships to their wives and families; and Mike has Gabby (Natalie Martinez), and Brian has Janet (Anna Kendrick). Mike (Pena) tells Brian (Gyllenhaal) that marriage is serious, and that, as an elder once told him, Brian should not propose marriage to a woman unless he cannot live without her—Brian suddenly looks like a young man overwhelmed by adult responsibility. Brian and Janet do get married; and their wedding dance is a howl of fun—and the comments that Mike makes as a toast confirm the ceremony as a communal ritual, and Gabby’s ribald comments are amusing, sisterly, useful. It is all a sweet interlude.
Brian and Mike have direct opposition from gang members, and in the film are the tough talk, music, drink, drugs, and mindless violence that go with that life. Sometimes crime pays very well, and one criminal has a gold automatic rifle. An embittered policeman, Van Hauser (David Harbour), warns the law officers that one day the police department will betray them; and it is possible that, when their fellow officers arrive late at an ambush, that prediction comes true for Brian and Mike. End of Watch, with its dark nights, bright lights, fast cars, rude talk, fights and gunshots, touches on things it does not explain or explore: the roots of crime in social discrimination, limited opportunities, poverty, and flawed education. A black gang member notes that chicken shacks have been replaced by taco stands—ethnic groups are fighting over money and space. The film’s writer-director is David Ayer, who wrote Training Day, the Denzel Washington film directed by Antoine Fuqua, in which Washington played a calculating and vicious corrupt policeman, one of Washington’s rare explorations of the dark side (American Gangster, Flight). End of Watch is the opposite of Training Day in terms of the presentation of the integrity of policemen. In one scene Mike leaps into a house afire to save a woman’s children, with Brian following; and subsequently each man gets a medal of valor. Yet, it would be premature to accept the film as only a valentine to the police force: it is driven by testosterone and adrenaline, the same things that can fuel the violence the police oppose; and it sometimes looks and plays like a combination video game, hip-hop video, and episode of “Cops.” It is true that Brian wants to be a detective, but he is not being trained for that; rather, he is going on his own instinct and intelligence—and that means that though his intentions are good there is a wild aspect to what he does. That wildness, whether on the side of good or evil, is a great part of this film’s appeal. Near the end of the film are a parade of pride and sorrow, and the survival of joyful memory.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.