'End of Watch': Cameras Everywhere
This intimate relationship is riveting, in part because of the many encounters Brian and Mike have with horrifying and astounding violence, but mostly because they spend so much time together, talking and not talking about what they see and do.
"I am the police, I am here to arrest you," explains Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal). "Nothing will stop me from placing you in a steel cage with bars." The camera on his cruiser dashboard bobs and jerks, making its way through Los Angeles streets. "I am fate with a badge and a gun," he goes on, "The thin blue line, protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad." And then, as his cruiser pulls up on a car full of men with guns, "Oh shit."
And with that, Brian and his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) pop out of their vehicle, shoot and get shot at, and walk away. Because they leave behind a number of corpses, the event is investigated. Still, as Brian explains at the beginning of End of Watch, their captain (Jaime FitzSimons) points out when the guys return to the briefing room after the investigation, to applause and hoots of approval, when cops do their jobs right, "I will always have your back." He's not entirely pleased that Brian is still carrying his digital camera, a habit he apparently picked up during his mandatory desk time, but he doesn't put a stop to it either. And so End of Watch has its essential visual shape.
That shape would be Brian recording himself and Mike everywhere and anywhere, in the locker room, so you can see scars, and in the car, so you can watch them make crude jokes and gossip. The film uses this camera as well as its own close, zig-zaggy imagery, to reinforce the men's intimacy: they share everything, from stories of sexual bravado and nerves to fears of an uncertain future. Just so you know, they're mightily heterosexual: Mike's married to Gabby (Natalie Martinez), whom he's known since they were kids and remains his only sex partner, and Brian soon meets Janet (Anna Kendrick), who boasts a Master's in food hydraulics, meaning, she's an outsider who appreciates the boys' intensely physical passions, so unlike that of the science-types she might hang out with at work (you don't see her apart from Brian, so you can only guess).
This isn't to say that Gabby and Janet are irrelevant, exactly, only that End of Watch positions them precisely at the edges of the men's shared experience, concerned observers whose occasional murmurs of admiration and anxiety might reflect your own. This experience, the men's experience, is showcased in the film in a particular way when it appears through Brian's lens, which makes the experience at once self-conscious, hype-performative, and punctuated by mistakes. When he records a fight between Mike and a perp named Mr. Tre (Cle Sloan), in which they agree to take off their weapons and throw down in the guy's living room, banging heads and knocking over tables, the images are so tight it's hard to read who's hitting whom when. When they joke with or make fun of colleagues, including the abrasive Van Hauser (David Harbour) and another pair of partners, stereotypically hot Orozco (America Ferrera) and so cool Davis (Cody Horn), Brian pushes his camera into their faces, even after they demand he "turn that thing off."
Other performances are less glib, as when Brian and Mike enter into a house where a villain is keeping a collection of immigrants in a back room, starving and abused and for sale, his camera captures Brian's sense of horror as much as much the basic facts of the gruesome scene. And when he follows Mike into a burning home, knowing Janet will not want him to do it but unable to leave his partner alone, Brian is caught on camera on his way out, as they've saved some kids and can now lean against each other, barely able to breathe.
This intimate relationship is riveting, in part because of the many encounters Brian and Mike have with horrifying and astounding violence, but mostly because they spend so much time together, talking and not talking about what they see and do. The film cuts away occasionally to their primary adversaries, a local gang whose members are also fond of recording their activities, illegal and violent and plainly set up as a point of comparison for the boy-hero-cops. In these scenes, the leader Big Evil (Maurice Compte) sneers frequently and shows off his ink, lording over kids -- like La La (Yahira 'Flakiss' Garcia) -- with gigantic guns, as at ease with the camera as his cop counterparts.
That ease becomes less of a focus as the film drives toward its harrowing and predictable conclusion. Determined to follow through on every lead they find, refusing to stand down when a burly DEA agent and their own captain tell them to do so, Brian and Mike stumble into a plot that extends far beyond their capacity to contain, much less actually stop. But this weak plot is never the focus of End of Watch. The movie is about watching in every way -- on what it means to be "fate with a badge and a gun," but also what it means to watch that fate pitch and stagger, rush and boom.