Somehow both nauseatingly tense and lighter than air, ‘Cop Car’ is a hell of a calling card for sophomore director Jon Watts. It’s the type of violent, atmospheric, clever and comedic indie that used to light up video store shelves in the 1990s, but is tricky to find these days.
The tightly-wound little movie might unspool a bit at the end, but it’s enough of a showcase that Watts managed to land the new ‘Spider-Man’ movie from it. By the time the credits roll, it’s hard not to get excited about what this talented new filmmaker might deliver for the wall-crawler.
‘Cop Car’ opens with a vast shot of one of those evocatively barren southern U.S. landscapes, the type that seems to defy era and feels effortlessly moody. We see two small figures buried in the frame and gradually Watts brings us close to them. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are a couple of kids who ran away from home as a way of killing the afternoon, looking for anything to provide some cheap thrills and maybe even a little trouble. Eventually, they stumble onto an abandoned cop car (see title) and decide to take it for the ride down the long and lonely highways surrounding them.
The filmmaker then takes a step back and we see that the car belongs to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), a dirty cop (see moustache) who left his vehicle unattended to dig a shallow grave and bury a body that’s currently locked in the trunk. Obviously, that means he’s none too thrilled when his car goes missing and he has to get it back quietly with no one else on the force noticing. So, looks like those kids found that trouble they were looking for, huh?
The contrast between the kids’ innocent misbehavior in the car and the sheriff’s shady dealings is the film’s bread-and-butter. Watts plays with the two tones throughout, and the way they bump into each other is milked for all sort of humor, thrills and suspense. The two kid actors are remarkably well cast and charmingly naturalistic. Watts (and his co-writer Christopher D. Ford) give them playfully foul-mouthed dialogue the likes of which rarely makes it to the screen anymore and they run wild with it, delivering some wonderfully funny performances – as well as some pained dramatic work when that time inevitably comes. That half of the movie has an almost ‘Bad News Bears’ feeling to it that Watts occasionally pushes over into an art house exploitation tone for the other half of the movie, such as a scene where the kids play with guns they find in the car with a chilling disregard for safety.
Kevin Bacon dominates the other side of the story and he’s absolutely remarkable. Looking sickly thin and sporting the least trustworthy big screen moustache since the 1980s, he’s not a specter of evil but a sleazeball who’s not to be trusted. It’s clear the guy is trouble from the moment he wanders on screen, but Watts and Bacon do a good job of slowly drawing out the extent of his nasty innards. The whole movie unfolds casually and matter-of-factly. Dialogue is fairly minimal and the plot seems to slowly pile up accidentally out of a series of events. Watts gradually ratchets up the suspense and hints at violence as the running time wears on, and Bacon embraces his role as the big bad even more. The actor never stretches outside the realm of small town dirtbag, but the way that image contorts through the eyes of the kids can be a little more frightening (especially when it’s far clearer to the audience how he’s manipulating the kids than it ever is to them).
Watts and his cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd have created a gorgeous film out of minimal locations and sets. They use their endless landscapes to their advantage and rely on careful camera placement and pulse-raising editing techniques to grind out their thrills among all the naturalistic character comedy. As a darkly comic violent mood piece reminiscent of something like the Coen brothers’ debut ‘Blood Simple’, the film works wonderfully well, serving up plenty of rousing entertainment, shocks and sick laughs.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to run out of steam slightly towards the end, and deliver a climax and finale that work yet don’t quite feel as satisfying or fresh as what came before. Perhaps the ingenuity of ‘Cop Car’ was in the dual narrative/tonal setup, and eventually it had to become a regular thriller. Or maybe the filmmakers just couldn’t quite stick the landing. Either way, the movie does slip away into convention somewhat in the last 20 minutes or so. Thankfully, the preceding 65 are so damn strong that it’s hard not to admire what Jon Watts and company pulled off.