Movie Review: “Cop Car”

Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson, Shea Whigham, Camryn Manheim
Jon Watts

After receiving mostly positive reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Cop Car” is guaranteed to become one of the most talked-about indie releases of the year following the announcement that director Jon Watts has been chosen to helm Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man reboot. Though it’ll be interesting to see how Watts handles a big tentpole movie considering the stripped-down nature of “Cop Car,” his ability to wring suspense out of the simplest moments goes a long way in making the film a lot more engaging than you’d expect. “Cop Car” doesn’t quite rival the classic Coen brothers crime thrillers that have clearly influenced Watts as a filmmaker, but it’s a confident sophomore effort that benefits from a great performance by Kevin Bacon.

Set somewhere in rural Colorado, a pair of 10-year-old boys – cocky instigator Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and meek sidekick Harrison (Hays Wellford) – discover an abandoned cop car in the middle of the woods. After daring each other to touch it, and then mustering the courage to investigate further, the boys find the driver’s side door unlocked and the keys hidden inside, so they decide to take the car for a joy ride. The vehicle belongs to the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon), who’s gotten caught up in some kind of criminal activity (the details of which are very sparse) and was off burying a body down the road at the exact time that Travis and Harrison happened upon his car. But unbeknownst to them, there’s another body in the trunk of the car that connects Kretzer to his bad deed, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it back.

“Cop Car” is unlike most traditional neo-noirs in that it flips the script by centering on two innocent kids instead of the typical, morally gray protagonist, like if the gang from “Stand by Me” had discovered Anton Chigurh’s briefcase of money and kept it for themselves. Though it’s not entirely far-fetched to presume that this is how a pair of small-town boys with active imaginations might pass the time (before stealing the car, Travis suggests to Harrison that if they’re caught, they’ll just say they’re cops), they seem a little too old to be so naïve and yet not old enough to be actually driving a car. The child actors do a decent job with the material, and they grow on you over the course of the film’s lean, 88-minute runtime, but it’s Bacon’s turn as the wiry, coyote-like sheriff – wearing his desperation like a cheap cologne – that holds your interest beyond the intriguing premise.

The story is almost embarrassingly simple, but it’s delivered with such slow-burn intensity that it creates some genuine tension as a result, especially the scenes with Bacon’s increasingly distressed character. Shea Whigham also pops up in a darkly comic role as the man inside the trunk, whose eventual escape leads to a nail-biting showdown in the final act between all the major players. Watts doesn’t shy away from the grim reality of the consequences of his characters’ actions, and that’s really important in keeping the movie grounded, because although it may start out as a couple of kids just fooling around, it forces them to grow up really fast. While “Cop Car” isn’t completely convincing in its use of violence to reflect their loss of innocence, it’s a solid, low-budget thriller that proves you don’t need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make a good summer film.