A lean, rugged neo-noir that tweaks genre conventions by putting two young boys at the center of its attention, Cop Car opens with credits shimmering like police lights. Cut to snapshots of writer-director Jon Watts’ rural Colorado milieu, a place defined by barren storefronts, abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated trailer parks, and flat, dusty plains. Across the vast, barren land walk 10-year-olds Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford): Travis utters curse words that Harrison dutifully echoes in a kind of casual call-and-repeat bonding ritual, and from the first sight of the duo—orchestrated by Watts as one gorgeous, unbroken tracking shot which captures them dwarfed by the country’s big sky, even when they make their away through a barbed wire fence—it’s clear that the boys are on an odyssey of some sort, albeit one of initially undefined purpose. And it’s clear that Watts (co-scripting with Christopher Ford) wants Cop Car to serve as a downbeat commentary about the futility of escape.
Coming upon a tree-shrouded area, the two are surprised to discover a county sheriff’s cruiser. After tossing rocks at it, daring each other to touch it, and finding an empty beer bottle on its hood, they decide that the car has been abandoned. Up to no good, finding the driver’s side door unlocked and the keys inside, Travis and Harrison opt to take a joy ride. Apparently having both run away from home, the two speed around the cow-populated landscape like juvenile delinquents unconcerned about the potentially serious consequences of their actions. Such uninhibited, devil-may-care recklessness gives the material an immediate jolt of peril, even before Watts rewinds his tale to reveal the origins of the car and its owner.
As it turns out, the car was left in this out-of-the-way locale by Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), its remote parking spot chosen so that the officer wouldn’t be seen hauling a body out of its trunk and onto a tarp, and then dragging it to a hole to be unceremoniously dumped. That corpse’s identity is left as vague as Kretzer’s reason for committing this apparent murder. Though a later scene of the cop flushing drugs down the toilet suggest that this mayhem stemmed from a narcotics deal-gone-awry, Cop Car shrewdly avoids such details, the better to focus on the more pressing matter of what Kretzer will do once he returns to find his car MIA, and then learns—thanks to a passing-by motorist’s (Camryn Manheim) report—that it’s in fact been stolen by two ten-year-olds.
Watts dramatizes his material with a slow-burn patience, favoring long stretches of silence punctuated by either the badgering-and-cajoling rapport of Travis and Harrison—the former the more overtly cocky instigator, and the latter the more reticent, if cannier, accomplice—or the drawling smooth talk of Kretzer. Stripped down to a white tank-top undershirt that reveals a sinewy frame to go along with his snake-like lethality, Bacon embodies his cop as a figure of barely controlled ferociousness, his panic and rage expressed less through overt behavior than through jangly soundtrack jazz. It’s no surprise that Kretzer has less-than-pleasant things in store for the two young carjackers. Yet, complicating that hunter-hunted narrative trajectory is an overpowering sense of doom, a fatalism that’s in keeping with the film’s neo-noir roots, which mounts once the kids begin playing with the cruiser’s caution tape and artillery and then, shortly thereafter, hear noises from the vehicle’s trunk encouraging them to take a peek inside.
Suffice it to say, nothing good comes of that decision, and Cop Car stages its climactic confrontations with a clean, methodical precision that keeps tension at a near-fever pitch, drenching its horrors in brilliant sunshine that stands as a bitter contrast to the action’s descent into darkness. When the sun does finally set on these characters, what’s left is a bleak portrait of the hopelessness of trying to change one’s circumstances, and the often-brutal punishment doled out by fate to those foolish enough to think they can alter who they are, where they come from, or where they’re going—even when those in question are just a couple of ne’er-do-well runaways looking for some mischievous kicks.
Director: Jon Watts
Writers: Jon Watts, Christopher Ford
Starring: Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim, Shea Wigham
Release Date: August 7, 2015