If I had the time or the inclination, I’d do some research on how much people who struggle with claustrophobia enjoy writer-director David Ayer’s movies. I’m guessing not so much. In 2012’s End of Watch and the recently-released Fury, Ayer seems obsessed with small spaces and the effect they have on those who fill them. Not that these films are an exploration of someone struggling with claustrophobia. Instead, they both use setting and camerawork to place the audience in grippingly intense tight spots – while we watch the characters bond because of it.
Considering End of Watch is essentially an intimate ode to the Los Angeles Police Department and Fury a similarly interior look at a Sherman Tank near the tail-end of World War II, it would be nice to have someone with experience in these general areas. Ayer spent time in South Central LA and the United States Navy, so you could say he is well-equipped in committing these harsh settings to the screen with decent authenticity. However, before he got around to making those two, he toiled away in the muck of Hollywood’s mediocre action flick landscape. After collaborating on the scripts for little-seen submarine thriller U-571 and the first (of many) Fast and the Furious movie, he wrote his own screenplay in 2001’s Training Day. Known mostly as a tour de force performance from Denzel that won him an Oscar, Training Day features some excellent writing. It also features quite a bit of dialogue set around Denzel’s loose-cannon LA narcotics officer driving Ethan Hawke’s rookie cop around the city. The nature of this setup – two law enforcers patrolling the streets and just talking – would be used to great (in my opinion, even greater) effect over a decade later.
That space of time would be filled with writing scripts and directing his first couple films. Unfortunately, the list contains nothing special: Dark Blue, S.W.A.T., Harsh Times, Street Kings. If you have (improbably) seen any of those, chances are you don’t remember much about them. In 2012, Ayer would put his efforts into a new kind of urban cop movie; End of Watch possessed a different sensibility. It was shot with mostly handheld cameras, lending a heavily subjective point of view amid the chaos a police officer must get involved in. With the “found footage”, shaky cam style, Ayer gets us up close and personal with his characters, which lets us feel like we are in the thick of the action. This can be attributed as a strength or a weakness depending on if your stomach can handle films like Cloverfield, Friday Night Lights, and the second and third Bourne movies. Here, the jerkiness of Ayer’s camera purposely disorients. In numerous scenes, it seems like there is nowhere for the protagonists to escape, it feels like everything around them is too overcrowded.
End of Watch also doesn’t contain much in the way of traditional cop drama plotting either. Featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as partners, enforcing the law in the savagely nihilistic streets of South Central LA. They are the two young hotshots on the force and we get a peek into their day-to-day lives as officers. Sometimes they will respond to a call and it’s nothing but a domestic disturbance. Other times, it’s human trafficking. This is part of what gives the film much of its intensity, but there is no larger story at service here. Just two boys in blue pushing the black-and-white.
Through these deathly, yet inherent, hazards, Gyllenhaal’s Brian Taylor and Peña’s Mike Zavala start the movie as best buds and only grow closer as time passes. Not only are they partners who must have each other’s back, but they ride around all day long in the same car. Most movies would have us believe a cop in South Central LA is always mixed up in something crazy, but since a significant amount of End of Watch is minor incidents, we get to see another reason why these two bond. Sure, they do so through super intense moments of life-and-death uncertainty, but their friendship also fuses more tightly over the mundane, quotidian events.
Fury goes to even greater (maybe even more obvious) extremes on this. Mainly set inside an American tank rolling through enemy territory as the Germans retreat, Ayer brings in five different soldiers into his claustrophobic world. All of us know the inside of a World War II-era tank is far from roomy, but Ayer shoots it so that we really get the picture. This time it’s not shaky cam but a more classical style. Ayer is much more patient with the shots in Fury, letting his camera just sit on the shining white horse at the beginning or the terrified look on a young soldier’s face. Still, the lively action inside the tank gives us a good idea of its mechanics: Brad Pitt’s character “Wardaddy” is the leader, Shia LaBeouf fires the shots as “Bible”, “Coon-Ass” (what a name) loads the rounds, and Michael Pena’s “Gordo” and Logan Lerman as “Norman” fire the turrets on either side. Ayer uses tight shots and quick cuts to place us right in the middle as they operate this murderous hunk of metal.
I had never really seen a war movie that focused exclusively on a tank outfit, but it actually turned out to be the perfect setting for the kind of camaraderie that naturally arises among military members. The closeness between the group is clear as they razz each other. It’s also clear when Norman reluctantly becomes a part of the team. They take to him slowly and only after he’s been morphed into a young killing machine. There may be issues with the way Norman’s character is written (he goes from novice to a willing, almost expert killer way too fast), but he (as the audience surrogate) provides a solid example of becoming assimilated to both the brotherhood and the soul-numbing cruelty of warfare. Stuck in that tank called “Fury” with four battle-hardened war veterans turned Norman into a fighter whose sole concern was not with the morality of it all, but for the man next to him. That’s what the claustrophobic intensity of Ayer’s films does to you.