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12 Movie Moments of 2012: Missing Children (End of Watch)

As well as counting down the top twelve films, I’m also going to count down my top twelve movie related “moments” of 2012. The term “moment” is elastic, so expect some crazy nonsense here. And, as usual, I accept that my taste is completely absurd, so I fully expect you to disagree. With that in mind, this is #3

I was not as taken with End of Watch as some were. I enjoyed the film, and I think both Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal gave superb performances, but I think that the decision to structure the arc of these two police officers was a bit of a mistake – as the film resorted to clichés like drug cartels putting out a hit on these two individual cops. The film started as an impressively grounded and candid exploration of what life must be like in the line of fire, but then it became a much more conventional film (albeit shot in an unconventional manner).

Still, when End of Watch was good, it was great. It was raw, powerful stuff that gave an impression of what it must be like to do that job day-in and day-out. At its best, it demonstrated the obvious toll that these small day-to-day incidents must take on those protecting and serving. Often it was the smaller sequences that worked best, those with little-to-no connection to the overriding “cartel” arc – the kinds of things that felt like the stuff that must confront officers of the law on a daily basis.

None was more powerful than the rather simple house call investigating the disappearance of two small children.

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It’s a clever, well-constructed sequence. It runs about five minutes (if even), but it is still put together with remarkable skill by writer and director David Ayer and his cast and crew. The set-up is fairly standard: a woman has reported her children are missing. The officers stop by the house to make some inquiries about where the kids might be. It’s all fairly standard so far. However, things become increasingly uncomfortable, and it’s a credit to Ayer that the scene’s eventual resolution becomes gradually more inevitable – it isn’t a sharp left turn, but a horrible reveal that becomes clearer and clearer to us as we watch the scene unfold.

It’s the little details that gradually add up to a rather disturbing conclusion. The woman is clearly stressed out of her mind, genuinely concerned and heartbroken at the idea that her kids might have run off (or, worse, been taken). In contrast, her partner is dismissive of her concerns. He initially seems to act like she’s being melodramatic or overreacting, but he slowly becomes more and more aggressive – not just towards his partner, but also towards the two police officers who are simply responding to a call.

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Watching the scene as it unfolds, the viewer comes to suspect why that might be. The man’s objections go from being dismissive to downright defensive, and it becomes more obvious that he’s clearly more upset that the police are in the house than he is with the fact the mother is clearly upset. What’s also unnerving – in a much more subtle way – is the fact that our two leads seem to immediately figure out what is going on, and we’re left to figure it out ourselves.

Zavala and Taylor insist on searching the house, which initially seems quite strange to us. You would imagine that they would put out an alert or something, or check familiar haunts, visit with friends. Instead, both Zavala and Taylor seem to recognise this set-up and scenario, and react as time has taught them to. We aren’t as accustomed to this sort of situation, and we figure it out only shortly before they find the children, taped up inside the closet by the man, evidently to keep them quiet.

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It’s a harrowing scene, but sadly the kind of mundane and banal evil that you can imagine unfolding on a regular basis. That’s what is so disturbing about the fact that Zavala and Taylor begin their search with the house. They know what is going on here – or, at the very least, they suspect. It’s another illustration of the toll that the job must take. Imagine having to reflexively think that about a missing child – that the danger might not be in the outside world, but in the home where they have lived for years?

It’s a bold, harrowing and powerful sequence, and it demonstrates how End of Watch works at its absolute best. It’s haunting, and it’s a scene that has stayed with me, in a fairly uncomfortable way. More than the drug cartels with their mass graves and their gold-plated machine guns, there’s something the seems far more unnerving about a man taping a bunch of kids up inside a closet so he can enjoy some peace-and-quiet.

Check out our other movie moments of 2012:

12. We Built This City (Rock of Ages)

11. September (Intouchables)

10. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, Premium Rush, Looper)

09. Throwing the toys together (The Avengers)

08. Running (Shame)

07. “You’d love my boyfriend, he’s a total chick flick nut.” (ParaNorman)

06. The Dark Knight Returns (The Dark Knight Rises)

05. Dancing (Monsieur Lahzar)

04. “… it has its moments …” (Men in Black 3)

03. Missing children (End of Watch)

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