A drift between the workaday duties of a Seattle bike cop and the more pressing demands of his inner world, Robinson Devor’s Police Beat is a film that’s neither here nor there—and I mean that as a compliment. Where most American cop movies are poundingly literal, as if drawing their tonal cues from semiautomatic weapons, this one takes only the length of its first several shots to wander away from the crime scene. The bike cop—a calm, stocky man known as Z (Pape S. Niang)—spies a fully clothed corpse floating facedown a few feet offshore and almost immediately pictures himself kissing his girlfriend (Anna Oxygen), who we soon learn has gone on a camping trip with another guy. Love and loss are the film’s twin preoccupations. Z’s lonely interior monologue is delivered in subtitled Wolof, the language of his native Senegal; the cop, like the movie, appears between worlds.
Befitting such disconnection, Police Beat didn’t seem to belong at Sundance, where it stood out for being what we used to call an independent film—the sort made with unknown actors, modest budgets, innovative production strategies, and regional specificity. Devor (whose snarky noir The Woman Chaser played the New York Film Festival in ’99) co-wrote Police Beat with The Stranger columnist Charles Mudede, whose crime reports give the movie its alternately lurid and mundane points of departure—man trimming shrubs nearly cuts into a sleeping old drunk, man in a supermarket ravenously chomps a hunk of raw meat, etc. These blotter sketches might strain credibility by being packed into a bike cop’s ostensibly ordinary week, but they hardly fail to help establish his psychology. Entering a blood-spattered loft to discover the half-dead victim of a knife attack, Z turns his attention elsewhere, worrying that his having sex with the wayward girlfriend if and when she returns would make him look desperate. The immigrant cop may be a stranger in this strange land, but his sexual obsession makes him a member of the human race.
If Police Beat sounds merely quirky on paper, its look is uniquely ravishing, its effect hypnotic. Shot through blue-green filters in widescreen 35mm and set to an aptly lulling mix of Satie and Aphex Twin, the movie is moodier still by simple virtue of Seattle, whose steep, verdant beauty could’ve been the filmmakers’ sole inspiration. (Mother Nature is a genius, although the location scouts deserve a special award, as does ace cinematographer Sean Kirby.) Z’s periodic police reports become increasingly poetic and existential (“No one in Seattle can help this man. He is in a lonely place . . . “), as if the cop (referring to himself?) has fallen under the movie’s spell. Dreamlike in style, Police Beat is also a real-world vision of what American indies could be if they dared to recognize the drama in our own neighborhoods.