Film Review – Cop Car
Children-in-peril films can be played for laughs (paging Kevin McCallister), but are most often reserved for thrillers. What’s more harrowing, after all, than the thought of your young son or daughter disappearing or falling into the hands of a crazed lunatic? Cop Car, Jon Watts‘ sparse but powerful new film, plays with these elements expertly. Wringing two believable and heartbreaking performances out of his young leads is just one of many tricks Watts has up his sleeve.
Harrison (Hays Wellford) and Travis (newcomer James Freedson-Jackson) have run away from home. Their reasoning is never made clear, or even discussed. Cop Car is less interested in plot detail than mood. Rather than filling us in on the likely depressing blanks of these boys’ home lives, Watts smartly drops us right into their rebellion. Wandering the woods and practicing swears, Harrison and Travis happen upon an abandoned police car. Travis dares Harrison to run up and touch it. Harrison returns the dare. Escalating from rambunctiousness to recklessness quickly, the boys (11 at most) decide to take it for a joy ride after discovering the keys on the driver’s seat. Kid logic being what it is, Travis calms a nervous Harrison by explaining if they get caught, they’ll just pretend to be cops. And off they go.
At around this point, the movie rewinds itself to shortly before the theft to show how the car got there and just who it belongs to. I will attempt to tread lightly in an attempt to avoid spoilers, but let’s go on record and say Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon in full sleaze mode), the owner of the car, is amidst the act of an unsavory deed or two. He only learns of the car’s disappearance well after the two take off in it and must find them before his department discovers it’s gone. This requires a series of clever lies and cover-ups, an area in which Kretzer seems to shine (at least until he snorts his way into stupidity). Like the travails of Travis and Harrison, we’re never fully sure just what kind of trouble Kretzer is in or what led him to digging a shallow grave in the middle of the woods.
In addition to Bacon, there are brief and admirable performances by both Shea Whigham and Camryn Manheim, but Cop Car hinges on its two lead actors. Coming-of-age movies live or die on the authenticity of their young stars(I’m looking at you, The Goonies) and Wellford and Freedson-Jackson are more than up to the task. Your heart will pound with each stupid decision or clumsy brandishing of firearms, not to mention the impending wrath of Kretzer and his mustache.
The cinematography is astounding. Given its beautiful sense of desolation, I am unsurprised to learn Matthew J. Lloyd is also credited for FX’s Fargo. Thanks, IMDB.
I’m unclear on what to make of the film’s ending. I understand it is meant to be ambiguous and, given the lack of information dispensed throughout, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Even so, I felt it lacked the gravitas it appeared to be going for. It’s a possible result of investing so much only to be left hanging, or hell, maybe I’m just a sucker for an ending. In any case, this one is worth the journey.