Found footage jumps the shark in End of Watch

Wednesday October 10th 2012

I’m not really a stickler for the way movies look. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’ll be the first person in line for The Master in 70mm, I own a considerable number of Blu-rays and I have nothing but disdain for people who think that 1.85:1 and 16:9 are one and the same aspect ratio. But I’m also a big supporter of digital cinematography, handheld camcorders and anything else that makes filmmaking even a tiny bit more democratic. Shit, I’m a Joe Swanberg fan — I know how to put up with crappy visuals.

The use of budget camera equipment is one of the major factors that allowed End of Watch, a South Central-set police drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Micheal Peña, to come in at $7 million. That’s great. Given that the film’s basically plotless, it lives or dies on mood, and Roman Vasyanov’s on-the-fly, documentary-style cinematography — together with Gyllenhaal and Peña’s evident enthusiasm for the project — has that in spades, even if it does occasionally resemble cut material from Crank 2.

The problem is: writer-director David Ayer is worried. He’s worried that you won’t understand why the film doesn’t look like Lawrence of Arabia. He’s worried that you’ll think you’ve accidentally wandered into a documentary about a cop who really, really looks like the guy from Donnie Darko. He’s worried that you won’t get it. And so — like so many contemporary filmmakers before him — he’s halfheartedly made the film a ‘found footage’ movie.

This serves no purpose of narrative, drama or character. The exact nature of Gyllenhaal’s so-called filmmaking ‘project’ is never explained, nor the motivation behind it. And we’re expected to take it as a happy coincidence that a local drug cartel have also caught the documentarian bug, and chosen to record their various criminal toings and froings with equal rigour. The blending of this material with footage taken from no discernible perspective (and shot on higher grade cameras) is similarly unexplained. All of which STILL MIGHT BE FINE if Ayer’s script didn’t constantly feel the need to reassure the audience — and presumably itself — that all of this is being done for a reason.

I hate to sound like Mark Kermode, but when did we start needing clarification as to how and why drama is being recorded anyway? Isn’t it taken as read that — as windows on fictional worlds in which world-famous actors play everyday people — movies are inherently fantastical, and that the literal mechanics of how the events on screen were captured are the least of our worries?

I’m not saying that the found footage genre is always a waste of time, or even that it needs to be entirely realistic to work. A couple of years back, District 9 disproved both of those notions in one fell swoop. But where that movie bent genres and stretched credulity because it simply had too many ideas to remain within such confines, End of Watch‘s found footage pretensions tend to materialise when it has too few.