D: Jon Watts / 86m
Cast: Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Shea Whigham, Camryn Manheim
Two boys, Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Wellford) have run away from their respective homes, and are travelling across country when they stumble upon a police cruiser in a small wooded area. Nervous about being discovered and taken home, they approach the vehicle with caution but soon realise that whoever it belongs to isn’t anywhere nearby. They get in and pretend to be driving it when Travis finds the keys. Caught up in the excitement of finding the car, they drive off, eventually reaching a main road where they almost collide with a woman driver (Manheim).
Meanwhile, Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon), whose cruiser it is, is busy disposing of a body he had in the trunk. When he returns to the car to dispose of a second body, he of course finds it’s gone. Confused, he uses his mobile phone to call Dispatch and ask the operator if she’s heard anything unusual over the radio. Kretzer is relieved when she says no, but knows that it could be just a matter of time before his car is seen or stopped. He begins to run across country until he comes to a trailer park. There he steals a car, and uses it to head home where he can regroup. When another call to Dispatch reveals reports of a stolen cop car, he dismisses the idea and arranges for all the local units to switch to another channel.
That done, he uses the radio in his truck to try and contact whoever’s stolen his cruiser. The boys don’t hear him at first, but they do hear a noise from the trunk. When they open it they discover a badly beaten man (Whigham) who is also tied up. He implores them to free him, saying the sheriff is a bad man and his life is still in danger. But when Travis and Harrison do free him, he overpowers them, and when Kretzer calls through again, the man forces Harrison to give him their location. While Kretzer heads to meet them, the man takes the sheriff’s assault rifle and hides nearby with the intention of killing him when he arrives. But when the sheriff does arrive, he senses something’s wrong, and so begins a game of cat-and-mouse that sees the two friends trapped in the back of the cruiser, and at the mercy of both the man and the sheriff.
Cop Car‘s basic premise is a simple one: boys steal a sheriff’s cruiser, sheriff tries to get cruiser back, things get messy and complicated very quickly. In fact, it’s such a simple premise that it doesn’t need much more embellishment than a woman driver who can’t believe what’s she seen (two boys driving a sheriff’s car). And director/co-writer (along with Christopher J. Ford) Watts knows it, paring down the action and the drama to the point where only the most essential requirements are needed or used. It makes a refreshing change to see a thriller that’s pared down in such an effective way, and it’s all credit to Watts and Ford that they maintain such a tightly focused narrative throughout.
Of course, they’re helped enormously by the presence of Bacon (sporting a moustache that could qualify as either a special effect or a character in its own right). As the cocksure sheriff whose crooked endeavours are brought to heel by the intervention of two unsuspecting ten year olds, Bacon is a mix of sweaty terror and ambivalent menace; there’s a moral compass in there, but thanks to the script and Bacon’s interpretation of the character the viewer can’t be sure which way he’ll turn when it comes to dealing with the two boys (as opposed to Whigham’s unequivocally bad guy, who in the movie’s most cruelly effective scene, tells the boys just what he’ll do if they try and double cross him).
With Bacon on such fine form, it’s a good job that Freedson-Jackson and Wellford are able to match him for credibility, their easy-going camaraderie and childish naïvete another of the movie’s wealth of positives. In this day and age of computer whizz-kids and their seemingly inevitable rush to adulthood, it’s good to see a couple of kids who aren’t tech savvy, don’t know about safety catches on guns, and believe that someone they find bound and bloodied in the trunk of a car isn’t on the wrong side of the law (their ease in driving does raise a few questions however). Travis is the more confident of the two, and Freedson-Jackson – making his feature debut – shows how vulnerable he really is beneath all the bravado. By contrast, Harrison is the more cautious and reserved of the two, and Wellford portrays his gradual toughening up with a skill that belies his age and experience.
There’s very little in the way of subplot either, with Kretzer’s pursuit of his car, and the man’s determination to kill him providing all the required tension and drama. By putting the two boys square in the middle of the two men’s determination to kill each other, Watts adds a layer of vulnerability to a story that would otherwise be a straightforward slab of testosterone set in wide open spaces. And what wide open spaces they are, the Colorado locations beautifully lensed by Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Seiple, the rolling grasslands often overwhelmed by some impressively glowering skies. The locations give the movie a sense of place and dimension, making even Kretzer’s run across country seem entirely possible, despite the seemingly endless vistas he has to travel through.
For all Watts’ and Ford’s careful attention to detail and the way in which they’ve carefully structured their story, there are still a few problems. The scene where Kretzer persuades the woman driver to look for his keys isn’t as clever or convincing as it needs to be, and leaves the viewer feeling a little disappointed at the way in which the movie is heading towards its conclusion. And the outcome of the sheriff’s showdown with the man feels forced, while what follows seems hopelessly contrived, as if the movie needed to be a certain length and this was the best way they could come up with to meet that need. It undermines all the good work that’s gone before, but not so much to negate it entirely, though some viewers will probably be left shaking their heads in dismay.
Rating: 7/10 – let down by a final quarter hour that flouts the carefully constructed narrative that’s gone before, Cop Car is still a great little thriller that is much better than you’d expect; eschewing cynicism (in a genre that can’t help itself sometimes), and focusing on the situation the boys find themselves in, it has a knowing depth that rewards on closer examination.