Real-world police experts urge men to wear a suit and tie when interviewing to become police officers. In Jody Hill’s acerbic 2009 comedy Observe and Report, cop wannabe Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) shows up to his psychological exam in an American-flag T-shirt and leather jacket, packing all his delusions behind a tense grin. Previous events in the movie have emboldened the mall security officer to stop taking his bipolar medication, and have made him feel like he could “really destroy some motherfuckers.” When asked why he wants to be an officer, he details a dream he has most nights about carrying “the biggest fucking shotgun” and blowing away “a black cloud made of cancer and pus.”
His fantasy even comes with a closing line, which he delivers with a grin: “You don’t need to thank me. I’m just a guy with a gun. I’m just a cop.”
In 2009, the scene played as Seth Rogen riffing on Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. The experience was discomforting even then, more than a decade before mainstream news discussed defunding the police, and well-removed from the seemingly similar box-office smash Paul Blart: Mall Cop, released just three months previously. Where Paul Blart peddles innocuous product placement, fat jokes, and copaganda to American families, Observe and Report features pointedly racist violence, a controversial rape scene, and hardcore drug use, all performed by characters in positions of authority. But watching Ronnie’s monologue in 2020, between news images of New York City cops driving into crowds, Chicago police blocking in (or “kettling”) protestors, the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and other live-streamed police brutality, the film takes on a new relevancy, and its most honest reading: Observe and Report is a criticism of the institution that inspires Ronnie, immersed in the darkness of a fantasy informed by storied police actions.
Like Taxi Driver, Observe and Report holds up a mirror to a society that has influenced such psychology, to the point where it doesn’t matter that Ronnie fails the policing exam. Ronnie is a monster of policing’s making, and the extreme humor in Hill’s anti-cop masterwork can be shocking, even as it’s based in America’s warped image about the goal policing serves.
Ronnie was born from Hill’s hatred for malls and angst toward the rent-a-cops who kept giving his dad parking tickets. As a vessel for satire inspired by real-life cop motives and behaviors, he’s a prototypical creation for Hill, a storyteller who depicts America from the perspectives of troubled, insecure white men who enforce their philosophies and delusions of grandeur on the small kingdoms they rule. Danny McBride’s karate instructor holds forth the philosophy, “at the core, people are shit” in Hill’s directorial debut, The Foot Fist Way. McBride’s Neal Gamby on HBO’s Vice Principals tells students, “the world is full of meanness, and shit!” And in Observe and Report, Hill’s parody of authority details why people like Ronnie want to become cops, without ever making us root for him.
Ronnie’s delusions of becoming a hero are jump-started when crime finally comes to his workplace, the Forest Ridge Mall in the fictitious city of Conway, New Mexico. First a flasher starts harassing customers. Then a robber hits a shoe store. Working with an actual local policeman, Officer Anderson (Ray Liotta), Ronnie tries to show off what he believes a real cop should do during the investigation, making for just a few of the movie’s caustic jokes mocking police inadequacy. When the two interview custodian Ramon (Rafael Herrera) about who robbed the shoe store, Ronnie listens intently as Ramon speaks in Spanish. “This guy fucking did it,” Ronnie immediately concludes, though he then admits that he doesn’t understand Spanish.
Like arguments made after countless police encounters with drug abusers, sex workers, the homeless, the mentally ill and other marginalized members of society, this interaction would have been better handled by someone with the training and empathy to recognize other people’s experience. Instead, Hill uses Ronnie to symbolize a police force that is counterproductively expected to offer ultimate decisions on how society should handle these groups, in place of experts or social workers.
Ronnie’s other suspect is Saddamn (Aziz Ansari), who Ronnie addresses with disgust as “Saddam Hussein of Iraq.” Ronnie’s attempt to interview Saddamn is not-so-thinly veiled enforcement by harassment, specifically racial profiling. “Look at him, that’s all the proof I need,” Ronnie says, after Saddamn tells Harrison he has a restraining order against Ronnie. (“Last week, he tells me he’s discovered my plot to blow up the Chik-Fil-A,” Saddamn says. “Why would I blow up Chik-Fil-A? It’s fucking delicious.”) Ronnie’s racism is meant as a joke, but it was inspired by American law enforcement’s racial profiling, particularly post-9/11, when the Department of Justice targeted thousands of men who were Arab, Muslim, or South Asian. According to the ACLU, that led to zero public charges of terrorism, and created a larger distrust and panic between citizens and the people meant to protect them.
Ronnie’s abuse of power goes even further when he does some “black-ops shit” in order to catch the flasher, though a serious montage of him stalking the mall in regular clothes (“Nice hat, you stupid motherfucker!” yells Saddamn), shows that he’s doing it mostly to spy on Brandi (Anna Faris), a department-store employee Ronnie is infatuated with. Following what he calls a “code of my invention,” Ronnie is undoubtedly influenced by America’s use of secret police, which has a history of controlling citizens and suppressing dissent — as with the FBI’s heavily criticized COINTELPRO program, who targeted members of the Black civil rights, feminist, and anti-Vietnam movements, or the the police’s Red Squads in various cities who for decades surveilled citizens and infiltrated protest groups. Following in their steps, Ronnie’s time undercover is indicative of a secret police’s true intent to not protect citizens, but harass them for a political gain that is itself personal. For Ronnie, it’s knowing what Brandi is doing at the mall; for the National Guard troops President Trump sent to Portland, it’s suppressing protestors with actions that have included throwing them into unmarked vans and speeding away, using anonymity as a weapon the public at large is meant to fear.
Ronnie is a product of a culture that has come to believe policing saves us from ourselves. His approach to being a security officer at the Forest Ridge Mall aligns with what self-proclaimed “killologist” and popular police-seminar tutor David Grossman calls the “warrior” mindset. The philosophy believes cops must go out in the field, not just react, but use potentially violent force that’s legitimized by their lethal authority. (Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop, attended Grossman’s seminar.) As Ronnie exercises community policing around the mall, he carries mace and a taser, and fires air guns at customers. His catchphrase when he outsmarts someone is “boom.” Rogen’s character is a loaded gun with a security-officer badge, in search of an excuse to shoot somebody.
The security officers at Forest Ridge Mall are all bad apples, and they empower Ronnie by not questioning his extremes. In their own ways, they represent the spectrum of complicit behaviors within policing. Comic book creators Matt Yuan and John Yuan play the Yuen Twins in the movie, figurative clones who Ronnie deems his “infantry.” As twins, they’re played up as emphasizing conformity, especially in sharing Ronnie’s eagerness to one day upgrade from tasers to guns.
Ronnie also passes along his ways of policing to Jesse Plemons’ Charles, who Ronnie deems his “student.” When Charles hesitates to address an irate character complaining about tickets, as a stand-in for Hill’s father, Ronnie’s advice is to be “louder, more authoritative” by screaming, “Calm the fuck down!” and then to excessively taser the man. Among the painful punchlines of Observe and Report, Hill notes the normalization of such forcefulness in an environment of power and obedience, as the moment further initiates Charles into Ronnie’s circle, and does not lead to any oversight from the mall manager (Dan Bakkedahl).
Ronnie’s self-proclaimed right-hand-man in the group is Dennis (Michael Peña), a secretly drug-addicted nihilist. In a movie that immediately equates authority with abuse of power, Dennis’ unethical behavior is the most brazen: Dennis sways Ronnie to punch skateboarding kids in the face, snort cocaine on mall premises, and peep on women in the dressing room. Dennis’ actions are an amalgamation of the top five offenses connected to why cops lose their certifications — including drugs and alcohol, violence, and theft, the latter related through a big reveal that Dennis is the mall robber. But Dennis faces no such justice, as he speeds away to Mexico in the mall’s raffle car, following in the history of many criminal incidents involving police officers that do not end in arrest.
Dennis and the flasher are problems, but in Observe and Report, the greatest villain is the police. Officer Anderson is presented as having a certain office-desk competency, but he’s the puffy face of an institution that’s shown as largely ineffective, self-serving, and antagonistic. Even when Ronnie goes on a pre-interview ride-along with a begrudging Officer Anderson, it becomes clear that the local approach to broken-windows policing has been futile. Instead of bringing effective change to a community, Anderson is a part of a system that will park a car in a community to intimidate generations of under-served citizens, particularly those of color.
The police in Observe and Report are mostly successful at creating an “us vs. them” dynamic, a common accusation in modern policing for when cops let their peers get away with crimes in a practice of “professional courtesy,” or fashion a protest as a battle between unruly citizens and well-armed keepers of peace. Ronnie thinks he’s part of the “us” crowd in that equation, until Anderson and other cops humiliate him for failing the test, and he realizes that Anderson never respected him. Their tension reaches a head during a glorious battle royale inside the mall, in which Ronnie wields his flashlight to fend off a bunch of cops, who attack him like henchmen in a martial-arts film.
For the film’s climax, Hill gives into Ronnie’s fantasy about catching the mall flasher, but prioritizes its perverse nature. The flasher (Randy Gambill) re-emerges to disturb a romantic kiss between Ronnie and mall employee Nell (Collette Wolfe). Ronnie pursues him, with Hill putting the chase in slow motion to show every ripple of Gambill’s body. Observe and Report then provides Ronnie two grotesque indulgences of cop fantasy, as he shoots the flasher, then brings him to the police. (In reality, only 27% of cops ever fire their weapon in action throughout their career, and only 25% of reported crimes are ever actually solved by arrest.) In sarcastic obedience of our expectations to see film and TV characters of authority solve crimes, Hill emphasizes this moment’s obscene quality, especially as such images of policing empower people like Ronnie.
In the end, Ronnie retreats to tyrannize the mall as a security officer, but not before he expresses the film’s main point: a hearty “Fuck you” and middle finger to the police, from someone who idolizes cops and comes to see them as bullies, while being unaware of the full damage they have done to his understanding of justice. The police rejecting him is mere damage control, and it doesn’t account for the countless Ronnies who are actually in the police force, harassing people of color, exercising brute force, or as Ronnie describes it at his interview, “just generally becoming the man.”
Hill’s most disturbing joke in Observe and Report is that Ronnie has been trained by the horrific normalization of prejudiced policing and excessive violence, and thinks he has the proper qualifications. For all the Ronnies who do pass the psychological exam — and now hide behind armored vehicles, plumes of tear gas, and a grotesque sense of superiority — Observe and Report helps us see right through them.
Observe and Report is streaming on Netflix and is rentable on Amazon and other digital services.