Don’t break your own rules.
If you choose to use the ‘found footage’ style—think Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project—then stick to it. The premise for End of Watch‘s visual style is that it consists of footage filmed by its characters, mainly by LAPD cop Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal). Yet this is regularly ignored, and soon we get multiple-angle footage and establishing shots of LA skylines. Was this an odd stylistic choice by writer-director David Ayer? A gimmick to distance the film from other police dramas? Lol, I dunno! But it may represent a misunderstanding of its audience.
Ayer’s could’ve used shaky-cam while filming the rest of Watch conventionally. We filmgoers are accustomed to shaky-cam; since Bourne was found floating in the sea we’ve accepted that handheld style as part of film grammar, forgetting that it implies someone on the other end of the camera. Removing the camcorder aspect would’ve cut a few moments but nothing of real value, including Janet’s (Anna Kendrick) message to Taylor. Which needs addressed.
Imagine you’re a cop. You’re seeing a girl, she stays for the first time. The next day you find she’s left a message on your camera. You watch it back to see her messing about with your gun, removing other girls’ numbers from your wallet, and getting saliva all over your camera’s lens. That’s a deal-breaker right there, even if the girl has a smile as infectious as Kendrick’s.
The first 30 minutes of Watch also highlighted its dialogue problems. Taylor narrates a car chase, seen through the window of his police car. Visually, it’s a strong way to start. But Taylor’s dialogue sucks, and drains all the awesome from the scene. Both Taylor and his partner Zavala (Michael Peña) are less cool than they think they are, so perhaps the dialogue is realistic for the character. But realism isn’t always required, at this point I want Taylor to sound like a badass.
Despite all this moaning, after that first shaky half an hour, Watch transforms into a good film. I grew numb to the camcorder issue, the dialogue improved, but mainly Gylenhaal and Peña both became more likeable the longer I spent with them. Gylenhaal’s still the charming doe-eyed guy from Donnie Darko. Peña I’m unfamiliar with, but the two fight through the mediocre dialogue and develop strong chemistry. Right until the end Watch improves; the two growing more watchable and the film getting ever more tense.
Watch has an unusual narrative structure, in that it doesn’t appear to have one until near the end. It’s more like an episode of Cops, the partners working from one call-out to the next. A missing woman, a fire—you never know which will be become dangerous and narratively important, and which is just another call.
The camcorder style occasionally goes first-person as the two pull weapons. The look is jarring, but instead of looking like no more than a computer game imitation, it works well. The camera’s intimacy also adds to the tension; we’re often close on Zavala or Taylor as they react to something we can’t yet see.
Okay, so you’re a cop. You’ve been out with this girl a few times. While you sleep she records on your video camera. She takes out and plays with your gun (so to speak). She goes through your wallet, and takes out other girl’s numbers. Then she kisses the camera lens, getting manky lips all over it. Is this really a girl you’d want to see again. I’d be too scared.
Go and watch it. End of post