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· 90 minutes
Directed by Robinson Devor
Written by Robinson Devor, Charles Mudede
· Pape Sidy Niang
Screened at the BendFilm Festival
Thanks to "World's Looniest Cop Video Chases & Shootouts" and other such TV shows, we tend to think of a policeman's world as fast-paced, charged with adrenaline 24/7/365/n! to the fourth power. But cops undoubtedly have a more human side, where things like love and heartbreak reside. And it is in that soft and vulnerable spot that Robinson Devor has crafted an interesting cinematic study called Police Beat.
"Z" is the simple name given to an African immigrant to America who has landed a job on the Seattle police force. His freshman status relegates him to a bicycle beat and the various calls it entails: Drugs, rape, murder, suicide, intruders, perverts, and everything else a typical city has to offer. He has asked for a patrol car, but has been denied: It seems he can't quite focus on his work since his girlfriend took off for a camping trip with another man. As the days pass with no word from her, Z grows increasingly heartbroken.
Police Beat is not what most people will expect. I saw it at the BendFilm Festival, and I was prepared for something else. Something like "America's Looniest..." But Police Beat does something much more intriguing: It places all of the gruesome aspects of police work in the background and brings Z's broken heart up close and personal. While most cop movies are about the crimes, this one is about Z's pining away.
This is definitely an interesting premise. We see Z (Pape Sidy Niang) and his partner called to numerous crime scenes and domestic disturbances. So many, in fact, I can't possibly remember them all. Some of the more vivid ones include a punk in the woods committing suicide and a woman running naked through the park to escape her lover's increasingly painful perverted sex cravings. I'm not sure I want those scenes so vividly burned into my memory, but there they are.
These scenes could have been rendered extremely repetitive, but Devor has trimmed each one differently, so that at times we see Z being called to the scene, at other times we join the scene after he has arrived. Some of the crimes are resolved, others are not and are left to our imagination.
But the point is not Z answering police calls. As scene upon scene of lawbreaking unfolds, the soundtrack focuses on Z's mental monologue to his girlfriend. Spoken in his native African tongue and printed in English subtitles, the monologue speaks of Z's great love for his woman, and the great gaping hole she has punctured in his heart. The monologue is so calm, and Niang's delivery so fluid and languid, that it provides a startling contrast to the often grotesque visuals there on the screen.
I don't think this premise would have worked with a standard American cop. It requires the foreigner, someone unused to American customs like dating, to still cling to his hopes regarding his girlfriend for such a long time. Anyone else would have given up the moment she walked up and declared she was going camping with another man, and the film would have been over before the opening credits were finished. Z's naivete gives us a workable story.
I said the premise sounded interesting, and I find myself more interested in it as time passes. I would like to see the film again, because my first viewing experience was somewhat pre-conditioned. I was ending a weekend at BendFilm in which the other two features I saw were easily two of the most boring movies I had ever seen. Longing desperately for something with some real energy, I was thoroughly downtrodden by Police Beat.
This is because the film never rises above that languid state that Z seems to permanently wallow in. His energy level never seems to change much, and the crime scenes are designed to add juxtaposition, not tension. That's the way the creators wanted it. So some of my negative reaction was simply due to my disposition based on previous festival experience.
However, I think the makers could have afforded some kind of rising action. It is a rare director who can make an intriguing story out of a flat-lined situation. I think of the Merchant/Ivory team, whose The Remains of the Day works because Anthony Hopkins' character does remain so completely passive throughout the film. But masters of this technique are rare; not every director is James Ivory.
As a general rule, something needs to change in a film to draw us in and compel us forward. While we sense a slight rise in tension as each day goes by with no word from the girlfriend, overall the energy of the film remains at too low of a level. Niang’s performance as Z is good for what he is doing and he successfully elicits some sympathy, but not with any kind of increasing intensity. Each scene plays along much like the one before. Since the voice-over never changes tone, emotion, or pace, and since the crime scenes do not suggest any danger to Z’s existence, the end result is that there is simply no rising action whatsoever. And this is the fatal flaw that makes the film less than something great. There is a hint of a climax as Z resigns himself to his girlfriend’s apparent unfaithfulness, but it is not so much an arc or slope as it is a flat road with a wooden sign that says "You have reached the climax" in faded, peeling paint. Sneeze and you’ll miss it.
Finally, the film ends on a point so enigmatic that I am struggling to this day to figure out what it means. I sincerely invite helpful comments on the subject by others who have viewed the film.
Police Beat is a film that will intrigue a few, confuse a few others, and bore the rest right out of their minds. I think with a little tweaking, it could have intrigued a greater crowd, but it is what it is, and it does end up being interesting, if not actually entertaining.