There are a few rules for found footage: the sex tape kind will make the rich more famous; historical archives will be repurposed as propaganda following a revolution; the camcorder boom of the ’80s and ’90s has been a boon for today’s documentarians; and fiction implementations of the concept are all about providing evidence of how the movie’s main character(s) died.
Does the new fictional found footage film End of Watch follow its respective rule?
[Warning: SPOILERS of the ending of End of Watch to come]
Firstly, it should be acknowledged that End of Watch is not entirely a found footage film. There are a lot of instances where writer/director David Ayer employs regular omniscient shots in addition to the predominant material captured via camcorder, hidden camera, surveillance camera, etc. In our interview with the filmmaker, he explains that he originally wrote the cop drama to be completely in the found footage style but later he “gravitated very quickly towards augmenting that stuff with normal operating cameras” to avoid falling into the traps of genre conventions.
One of those trappings is, of course, that the protagonists die at the end. Not to spoil other films for you, but this is a rule we’ve seen with such notable works as The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism and this year’s Chronicle, which proves it’s not only the horror variety that deadly endings apply to. Ayer is fine to believe any criticism of his deviation from “coloring in the lines” is out of loyalty to genre expectations, but the real issue with End of Watch is that it goes against cinematic reason in general.
Ayer said something to us about being very detailed in the script regarding what kind of camera would capture each shot, in order for his cast and crew to understand “why we were seeing what we were seeing.” But, more importantly, the audience needs to know why we are seeing what we are seeing. With narrative films that aren’t outright experimental or surreal works, there should be a reason for everything we are seeing and a reason for how we’re seeing it. And “because it’s neat” should never be that reason.
In End of Watch, one the main characters, Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal), brings a camera with him on the job because, as he tells us, he’s working on a project for a college film class. In addition to a handheld camcorder, he also has some miniature digital cameras that pin to the police uniforms of himself and his partner, Mike (Michael Pena), and the two of them capture a typical experience of their job, its highs and lows both. But the movie we’re watching isn’t Brian’s finished project, obviously, because of the “augmented” cinematography as well as the inclusion of self-incriminating footage shot by a gang member’s camcorder and one small bit of night vision spy recording of a drug cartel boss.
Those other cameras and shots existing within the narrative (the diegetically shot material, for you film studies people) are more likely the kind of thing pieced together for someone in the film investigating or presenting the compiled material as it shows what led to Brian and Mike getting shot. Never mind that Brian’s survival is unlikely given the clearly thorough machine gun being shot very close to his and Mike’s bodies. Or that it feels tacked on, even more than the final flashback bit, both of which seem very much aimed at keeping the audience from being too bummed out. By the reason of our (and whomever else) seeing this material this way, it implies that both men are (will be) casualties at the end.
Or, at least that Brian is (will be) disabled and can’t speak or has lost his memory, though any of these situations might be even more of a downer for moviegoers.* Maybe there’s a possibility that the footage could be corroborating evidence in addition to whatever Brian could provide first-hand, but it doesn’t seem as necessary as support for his own statement. So, instead, and with the addition of genre expectation and the narrative device of foreshadowing blatantly used by Ayer at other moments through dialogue and plot structure, the way the story is told actually promises us Brian’s death.
Ayer can claim to be going against the grains all he wants, and to a degree he can be celebrated for trying to buck conventions and avoid predictability. However, in the case of End of Watch, the course in which the film goes feels more like a cheat than an act of creativity. And regardless of style, keeping Brian alive reeks of being a cop out, as well. After all, how darkly ironic would it have been for Ayer to conclude his first cop movie focused on noble characters with their self-destructive demise?
Also check out Robert Levin’s review of End of Watch.
* I can see where this statement is unclear. I do not believe that Brian is disabled nor has lost his memory based on what we see on screen in the actual movie. Continuing from the previous paragraph, I’m still talking about the reasoning dictated by the film’s style, which would imply or indicate that he should end up in some way incapable of speaking of the incident, whether because he’d be dead or because he wouldn’t be able speak or would have no recollection. I apologize for the confusion.