Right from the opening scene — which involves two young teen boys walking alone in an arid landscape, repeating cuss words as if they’ve never been this free before — Cop Car establishes itself as something different, assured and in control of every swagger. It’s darkly funny. It takes some unexpected turns. Its swift violence not only shocks but resonates with consequences. In short, it’s an almost perfect low-budget thriller.
We follow the boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) as they come to a gully and discover an abandoned police car. At first afraid and paranoid to approach it, it’s not long before they unwittingly find the keys and escalate their play-time into a free drive through the barren desert.
Their very adult problems begin some time later when the owner, Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), returns to find his car stolen after a round of burying an unknown body somewhere in the desert. From that ominous set-up, Cop Car becomes a tense game of CB radio threats, dangerous hide-and-seek, and unrelenting actions as the Sheriff demands his car back. Oh, and young Harrison and Travis also discover some nasty secrets about their joy ride as the day wears on.
There’s so much good in Cop Car, it’s easy to see why it became one of the ‘buzziest’ tickets earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Kevin Bacon, who has really diversified his acting portfolio over the last decade between challenging roles and unique cameos, creates a character in Sheriff Kretzer that manages to strike a balance between fearlessly unhinged and emphatically desperate. He’s a bad guy, for sure, but there were times I found myself actually rooting for him. Just in the way he can instantaneously shift his tone of voice from gruff whispers to charming low-speak on the CB radio to his female dispatcher (voiced by real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick), Bacon inhabits the Sheriff as a duplicitous character that fits right at home in a serpentine thriller such as this.
Written and directed by Jon Watts (whose other feature length film was the Eli Roth horror movie simply titled Clown), Cop Car is economical in its filmmaking and smart in its narrative choices. It’s no surprise Watts has been tapped as the next director in the Spider-Man film franchise.
Like the hallmarks of the Coen Brothers’ early thrillers in the 80’s or John Dahl’s ‘neo-noirs’ of the ’90’s, Cop Car acknowledges its predecessors while maintaining a personality all its own. That’s something Hollywood sorely lacks in its big budget aesthetic, so perhaps Watts can breathe some energetic life there. In the meantime, see Cop Car and bask in the genuinely surprising ways this little film leaves a big impression.
Cop Car opens on Friday, August 14 at Look Cinemas in the Dallas area.