Focus World, 2015
Writers: Jon Watts, Christopher D. Ford
Director: Jon Watts
Out of 5: 4
From the blocky opening credits emblazoned on the screen accompanied by flashing police lights and a throbbing synth score, Cop Car announces itself bravely and boldly. Although not as predisposed to a retro feel as recent throwback thrillers like The Guest or It Follows, director Jon Watts’ sophomore feature is invested in establishing a pervasive sense of dread right off the bat. The tale follows two troublemaking, yet ultimately innocent youths who discover a corrupt sheriff’s cruiser alone in a field and take it on an ill-advised joyride. Quickly it becomes clear that the sheriff needs the car back and may get violent in his attempt to recover it.
Using some sly storytelling techniques, much of the action is told from the point-of-view of the two young children. The movie patiently watches them try to complete basic tasks like figure out the purpose of a portable defibrillator and teach themselves to drive a car through trial and error. When Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), the more courageous of the two boys, figures out that “P means stop and R goes backwards,” Harrison (Hays Wellford) replies with the authority of fake knowledge, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” This level of one-upsmanship and going too far is a key element as the movie devolves from a couple of rebellious youngsters at play to a foreboding fable of fear.
Even though the two main characters may be unaware of the consequences of their actions, Cop Car as a film broadcasts a strong sense of respect for the danger the children have to face. The eerie score by Phil Mossman and intimately static camerawork make sure that there are equal levels of unease in regards to both accidental and deliberate violence. At times these scenes are cringeworthy, but mostly the tone is kind of funny. It’s just that the laughter is primarily of the nervous variety.
That being said, Cop Car also regularly displays extended, somewhat cryptic scenes of the panicking Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) navigating the treacherous waters of finding his automobile without alerting his law enforcement colleagues. Even scenes as simple as watching him break into a beat-up vehicle in a trailer park are chair-clutchingly intense. Kevin Bacon wonderfully juggles his natural charm with his character’s menacing actions. Kretzer’s often erratic and somewhat bumbling behavior expertly gets the audience in a mindset of pure unpredictability.
Meanwhile, Wellford and Freedson-Jackson are naturalistic in their roles and it makes their plight instantly relatable. Even someone who wasn’t nearly as much of a juvenile delinquent as these two kids can understand the allure of stealing a police car. They just so easily wave off the potential for trouble in light of a few escalating dares and the opportunity for forbidden fun. Sometimes the young actors are asked to shift gears from oblivious to gleeful to jealous to terrified in the blink of an eye and they are more than up to the task throughout the film.
Although Cop Car doesn’t tackle any political issues regarding police-related current events head-on, it cleverly and obliquely comments on the larger idea of authority every time the previously nervous children become immediately empowered behind the wheel of the cruiser. The whole affair calls to mind the dark elements unexplored in last year’s Let’s Be Cops, told through the vein of Tom Sawyer’s dangerously fanciful slave rescue in the final act of Huckleberry Finn, directed with the cruel aplomb of William Friedkin. The innocence of rambunctious youth juxtaposed with complicated adult danger provides for a gripping movie and at 86 minutes it’s about as tight a script as can be.
To read more from Zak Santucci, see his work at ActionAGoGo.com, where this review was originally posted.
All images courtesy of Focus World