by Philip Price
“Cop Car” opens with a shot of newly constructed houses in a newly developed subdivision that all look like one another. There is a sense of freshness to the distant, static shot, but then it is followed by something more interesting and dynamic. Isolated trailers, convenient stores that don't bear corporate brand names and barren country roads where telephone poles still line the way. In short, we are quickly disconnected from any kind of familiarity and brought to the ground level that is the wonderment of being inside the mind of a prepubescent boy. Actually, there's probably a slight bit of puberty that has begun to alter Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison's (Hays Wellford) body and minds, but no doubt less than they'd own up to. The two boys are presumably running away from what we come to understand are rather unspectacular home lives, but of more importance is the fact they are competing in an exchange that consists purely of curse words, working its way up from the likes of "penis" to the "F-word.” Harrison refuses to say what society deems the worst of these words despite Travis employing multiple peer pressure tactics telling us all we need to know of the two boys. It is when Harrison and Travis stumble upon an abandoned cop car 10 minutes into the film that things begin to come together. Director Jon Watts works from a script by himself and co-writer Christopher D. Ford and in establishing all we've already put together by the time the titular vehicle is introduced we have a strong sense of apprehension about where things might be going. Watts eases the audience into this strange, time-warped landscape of severe austerity while making the terms of our environment clear. In both the aesthetic and mentality of our lead characters we are transported to an age where one's outlook on life and subsequently the life they lead and the circumstances they find themselves in by the end of the film are of a certain simplistic nature, but simple doesn't always mean sunny.
Upon stumbling on this cop car Travis and Harrison naturally decide the best thing to do would be to take it for a joy ride. The idea of 10 and 11-year old boys driving around a car in fields full of possible naturalistic traps and unseen obstacles is enough to make anyone tense up slightly, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. What comes next is the introduction of Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon). Kretzer is a weasel-like fella who we come to meet just prior to the boys jacking his sheriff's vehicle. Personally, I wouldn't consider it a spoiler to say why Kretzer abandons his car and therefore doesn't know how it comes to disappear given it happens 15 minutes into the film, but I'll stick to divulging as few details as possible simply because knowing as little as possible going in will undoubtedly enhance the viewing experience. Considering all of the implied circumstances of Kretzer's situation things are not as simple as we once believed them to be. In fact, Kretzer has drawn himself into a situation where getting his car back is an unseen obstacle that puts him in the very crosshairs of all that he has seemed to work so hard to gloss over. His life, we assume (can you tell there's a lot of that going on here?), is one big facade. Striving to maintain the lowly stature of a small town sheriff while his seeming aspirations hope for bigger things, Kretzer is a perfect mold of a mystery. What is so wrong with the facade that one must risk it completely though? Kevin Bacon is 57 years old and there is no reason to believe his character is any younger. What might a man of this age still be doing chasing aspirations, not settling down and not accepting the role his choices have assigned him? We don't really know, but then again we don't know the details of what he's done either and so we simply accept the circumstances of this deadly game Kretzer is playing and that these two innocent boys have put themselves at the center of it. Go ahead and tighten your belts.
“Cop Car” is a slight film. It clocks in at a mere hour and 27 minutes (including credits) and feels all the more precise because of it. This is clearly a side effect of being an independently financed feature, but it works in the film’s favor as its focused approach to story and the telling of that story leaves room for character flourishes and stylistic offerings that make the overall product feel like a single, cohesive piece of work. Where this is most evident is in the writing for the two young leads. Whether it be about how to actually drive a car or the immature, diarrhea jokes they make that genuinely crack them up-the film feels really in tune with this aforementioned simplistic mentality. This mentality is not made clear by stating it over and over again, but more by having consistent moments in which the audience can recognize at what stage of life these boys are existing within. While Freedson-Jackson and Wellford aren't exactly the greatest of actors, they clearly have much room to grow and one's not going to hold their sometimes thin performances against the film to such a degree it turns into negativity. Let's face it, this is Bacon and his mustache's movie anyway and they both kill it. While the narrative is purposefully slight it is still difficult to discuss what makes Bacon's performance so solid without giving too much away. There is one scene in particular though that demonstrates everything about the performance and the character of Kretzer himself that perfectly summarizes its effectiveness. This scene occurs just after Kretzer realizes his car has been stolen and given he can't exactly radio for help given his location would be of certain suspicion he decides to phone dispatch and put out feelers as to where he currently sits with his peers. Before dialing the phone though, Bacon walks around frantically while trying to compose his voice to a level that relays a sense of normalcy to the woman on the other end. That he succeeds in conveying his intended tone and sets out running as soon as he hangs up gives the audience everything they need in order to gather we're dealing with someone well trained in the art of deception and that the film will largely prevail because of this character alone.
All of that taken into account, “Cop Car” still has its share of shortcomings in that by the time we come to the end it more or less feels like an exercise in duplicating genre tropes than it does something significant or of actual substance. I was most definitely on the edge of my seat a few times and the performances from the adult cast (including what are essentially cameos from Camryn Manheim and Shea Whigham) are all well-worth the short time it takes to watch the film, but I wasn't necessarily moved with excitement or anxiety in the way I felt I should have been. I realize all films, like life itself and its many situations, require a different approach and filter through which we take them in and “Cop Car” is one that should be a genuine amount of fun filled with moments of deep tension that make us ask, "will they or won't they?" rather than, "who's wrong and who's right?" Most of the time, this rings true of Watts' thriller, but I can't help the feeling that there was some part of me left malnourished by the experience and that's not because I was left wanting more (the running time is perfect for the story it is telling), but because the weight of the actions I saw unfold didn't hit me as hard as they were expected and no doubt intended to.