Tuesday, November 20, 2012

End Of Watch & The Hunt

Two films out in a week or so, and with nothing to link them together, other than the fact that I've seen them both and they provoked strong (albeit almost contradictory) reactions.

End Of Watch is, on first spec, immensely enjoyable. And therein lies the problem with David Ayer's buddy cop movie set in the ganglands of LA (a bit like his other scripts for buddy cop movies set in LA such as Training Day). This is supposedly a gripping tale of the daily efforts of Jake Gyllenhaal and (the superb) Michael Peña in dealing with the grimier side of American urban life. This includes child abuse, drug culture, quite spectacular violence (watch out for the knife attack - even hardened film critics gasped at that bit) and naturally LOTS of guns. Yet by the end one can't help feeling exploited. Ayer (the man who gave us the most historically inaccurate film of all time) trades thrills for real human drama.

For starters, there's the standard (and surely now past its sell-by date) use of the video camera device to add verite. If you stop for a second to analyse where this footage is supposedly coming from it falls apart. Gyllenhal we're led to believe is an ex-serviceman (ie: a rough and ready but essentially good ol' patriotic boy) who's improving himself by studying law at nightschool and slyly videoing his daily adventures as some kind of college diary project. At the same time the latino gangs they're pitted against, luckily, seem to have their own handheld documentary maker. 

Yeah, right...

Secondly this is an immensely reactionary movie. The cops, while having a tendency to rough house and play jokes are family men, strong on kids, wives and utterly at odds with any of the life they see on the streets. Officer Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) begins the film with the words 'We stand together, a thin blue line, protecting the prey from the predators…',  yet at no time do you get a sense of anything good to be protected. This is frontier territory. Lawless and bleak. 

Remind you of anything?

Yes, this paean to law and order and the terrible price it extracts from its enforcers is, when you strip away the contemporary trappings,  a WESTERN. Short of horses, black vs white hats and a saloon, this is morally simplistic stuff. There's a somewhat half-hearted attempt to give contemporary credibility by including a plot  that refers at the terrible drug cartel killings and human degradation of Ciudad Juárez that provide the background to work like Roberto Bolano's 2666.  This LA is now infested with human trafficking and dark Mexican gangs, replacing the black culture of the '80s and '90s. But it's a bit like watching a John Ford movie that sees the cavalry buddy up with the indians to fight… erm, the Mexicans. 

The film's filled with fine performances (especially from the aforementioned Michael Peña) but it's ultimately just a right wing, two-dimensional tale, made even thinner by comparison to an LA cop tale such as this year's  gritty and thoughtful Rampart (coincidentally - Rampart was co-scripted by James Ellroy, who wrote the first draft for another of Ayers' cop movies, Street Kings).

So, hold on to your money to see The Hunt.

This, it has to be said, is not an easy watch, but is nonetheless wonderful. Mads Mikkelsen (previously best know to UK audiences for his underused turn as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, but here really acting his socks off) plays Lucas, a well-liked divorcee struggling with child support issues who, while helping out at a local village infant school becomes wrongly accused of the abuse of his best friend's daughter. It's director Thomas Vinterberg's own answer to his incredible Festen, showing the opposite side of the coin from the accusee's side.

This is one of those amazing films that doesn't forget that to make a drama both poetic and addictive you need not get too clever. The hunt of the title is both metaphorical and literal. Against a background of typically Scandinavian outdoorsmanship and small town Calvinism, it skilfully shows how close friends can so easily be turned to bitter enemies as Lucas is driven half-insane by people both scared and too quick to judge. It's a film about honesty, bravery and the dangers of small-mindedness.

There's a scene near the end set in the local church on Christmas eve which is so utterly intense that you may end up watching it through your fingers, yet for all its fearlessness there's a huge amount of warmth and humour at its heart. It's especially amazing when you consider that this is by Vinterberg whose role was as the prime instigator of the Dogme movement. The Hunt is mature, haunting and, yes I'm going to say it, a classic.

End Of Watch is released in UK theatres on November 23rd
The Hunt is released in UK theatres on November 30th

No comments: