Running time: 88 mins.
Release Date: USA, August 7,2015
From director Jon Watts, and star and executive producer, Kevin Bacon, comes this dark, gripping new dramatic thriller. With comparisons sure to be made to the classic coming-of-age story “Stand By Me,” this film is actually more evocative of another lesser-known, but equally moving film from that era. Bleakly expressive of the perils of a disregarded childhood, “Cop Car” is the country cousin, to the suburban teen angst, and cul-de-sac boredom of early teen Matt Dillon in 1979’s “Over the Edge.” Set to a sparse, tense score by Phil Mossman, rather than Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”, the films may exist in different eras, but share much of the same dark, pragmatic world view about what happens to kids left unattended, and set adrift in modern society.
A sparse, distressing film, “Cop Car” is a poignant example of the kind of edgy, personal filmmaking that far too often can’t find its audience within modern multiplexes, sandwiched between costumed superheroes, and CG-generated space battles. With a poster, and marketing materials, that elicit visions of C-level, made-for-late-night television binge watching, this film is anything but shlocky genre fare. A project that could have ended up as a low-budget exploitation picture in different hands is elevated to another level entirely here by director Watts and crew.
Opening in the desolate fields, and brown expanses, of the Colorado farmlands where the story takes place, we’re introduced to the main protagonists of the film, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), who have seemingly decided to run away from home. The banter, and easygoing, bored nonchalance, of the two are note perfect renditions of early adolescent life, instantly relatable to anyone who ever threatened to run away as a child. Watts clearly has a great ear for dialogue, as well as an ability to work nicely with young actors. Both skills will serve him well, as he’s apparently been tapped to direct the next big budget Spider-Man reboot for Sony. Kevin Bacon, as Sheriff Kretzer, is in fine, manic form here, shifting from breathless paranoia, to smooth, reassuring command at the drop of a hat.
Shot in a desaturated palette of farmland browns and greens, the two boys amble aimlessly through the countryside, busy practicing their cursing, when they come across what appears to be an abandoned Sheriff’s vehicle. Like the dead body in “Stand by Me”, the car serves as a mysterious, alluring prize for the two friends to crow over. Like overly cautious predators, the boys stalk, test, and retreat from the car numerous times, in another example of writing that vividly captures the way kids act when they’re alone. Eventually, realizing that the car seems to be abandoned, the boys hop in, and take it for a joy ride, oblivious to any potential dangers that might arise. Whizzing past bewildered cows, Travis proclaims that he knows how to drive because he’s played ‘Mario Kart’, with Hays opening up the police laptop, wondering aloud if it’s “got any games on it.” It’s this heady blend of youthful, careless innocence, mixed with genuine danger, that gives a dark, dramatic weight to the proceedings.
A flashback provides context for how the car arrived in the clearing, showing Sheriff Kretzer, played with raw, country rasp and a wicked mustache by Bacon, leaving it behind as he disposes of a dead body nearby. The reveal for the viewer that the car not only belongs to a shady police officer who isn’t far away, along with the discovery that there is another body in the trunk, sets off a breathless series of tense moments that continue to unravel over the next hour. Evocative of classic Coen Brothers films such as “Blood Simple”, on the surface it’s a marvelously straightforward, and effective thriller.
It should be noted that there is a subplot involving a lowlife criminal, played by Shea Whigham, that feels like it drags on too long, without a particularly noteworthy payoff. However, it does allow for one of the meanest, trailer-park monologues of criminal intention seen on film since Christopher Walken waxed eloquent about his Sicilian ancestry in “True Romance.” Camryn Manheim also makes a brief, but effective appearance, lending a sense of community to the otherwise isolated affair.
As with most worthwhile, provocative narratives, there is a great deal of subtext floating beneath the surface of the dramatic action on outward display here. With hints of neglect, if not outright abuse in their past, the two boys are chilling in their desensitized disregard for their own welfare. One heart stopping scene, where the boys withdraw assault rifles, and a flak jacket, from the police cruiser, in a misguided attempt to test the stopping power of guns taller than they are, is chilling in it’s veracity. With no personal concern, or regard for the actual danger of the items they possess, the boys fiddle with a powerful defibrillator, and twirl monstrous handguns around like children’s toys.
Similar to the shiftless, New York City teenagers in Larry’s Clark’s seminal “Kids”, or the poor, Favela-bred youngsters in “City of God”, these are children that grew up without traditional social boundaries, or a lack of concern for their own welfare. It’s a movie that wants us to ask where the line falls between playing cops and robbers, with BB guns and tree-house forts, to jumping in a real police car loaded with an arsenal of deadly weapons, and taking it for a joyride.
A taut, effective thriller, with a black, beating heart at its center, “Cop Car” will hopefully find an audience outside of mall cineplexes, and genre loving, film festival audiences. It’s one of those movies that you stumble across on television one night, and wonder how it snuck past you when it came out. Deserving of a wider audience, it’s not just a powerful work of cinema, but is as indirectly devastating a critique of U.S. gun culture as anything that has come out of the official political establishment in the last 50 years.