Jon Watts’ Cop Car features what Hollywood refers to as a high-concept story: a plot that can be summed up in just one sentence. It follows two young runaways named Travis and Harrison (James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford) who come across an abandoned police vehicle and decide to steal it – unfortunately unaware that the sheriff who owns it (Kevin Bacon) has been up to some shady business and is beyond desperate to get it back. It’s a straightforward premise, but it’s one that’s executed with naturalism, surprising wit, and fantastic style – all coming together as an entirely impressive feature from a talented, up-and-coming filmmaker.
There’s an interesting tone at play in the movie, and while it’s hard to identify as either a strict drama or a comedy, it’s an atmosphere that audiences will find wonderfully reminiscent of the work of the Coen brothers. Watts and his co-writer Christopher D. Ford capture both the darkness and the strangeness of our world, and it’s as the characters make their way through this world that they realize just how dark and strange it can really be. The film weirdly often generates a rare sensation of mixed humor and horror, created through witnessing some absolutely shocking irresponsibility on behalf of both the adults and the children in the narrative. There’s a part of you that wants to laugh out loud when the kids are trying and failing to test the effectiveness of a bulletproof vest with a safety-activated gun – but then part of you wants to scream because you remember the most basic definition of Chekov’s Gun.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cop Car’s pitch-black comedic tone, however, is the effect that it winds up having on the way that we watch the movie and how we perceive the characters. Over the course of the film, the young Travis and Harrison only barely seem to realize the gravity of the situation they find themselves in, but for obvious reasons we view these “innocents” as being the protagonists, and Kevin Bacon’s corrupt Sheriff Kretzer being the antagonist. This idea is completely turned on its ear whenever the story shifts to the sheriff’s point of view – and it’s because of the tone. The sheriff may be involved with all kinds of terrible things, but his frustration in the situation is presented as being oddly relatable, and is very easy to understand as the “hero” of his own story. In less talented hands, it’s not hard to imagine these perspectives clashing and muddling the story being told – but Watts and Ford create a wonderful balance and the result is both fascinating narratively and just a lot of fun to watch.
The script by Jon Watts and Christopher D. Ford presents great material for any actor, but Cop Car’s three leads really do take full advantage of what’s in front of them. It’s rare that we ever see a bad performance from Kevin Bacon, but he is totally in his element in this film, and brings so many great dimensions out of the troubled Sheriff Kretzer, allowing us to see him both as a dangerous threat and a guy having a really, really bad day.
On equal footing are James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford, who really just sell their performances by realistically acting like two kids going for a joy ride in a cop car. They have great chemistry together, and while their roles have divergent personalities – the former being a bit more outgoing and the latter more reticent – they really gel together and sell the idea of two friends coming together for a bit of misadventure.
Though the movie does take place in a modern setting, Watts proves very cognizant that the idea of two young outlaws squaring off against a corrupt sheriff is a plot taken straight out of a western – and this cognizance is beautifully reflected is the chosen aesthetic for the movie. There is much to be said about Kevin Bacon’s glorious mustache in this regard, but where it really comes through is in the capture of the vast landscape that surrounds the plot. Filmed out in what looks like the flattest stretches of Colorado, civilization feels like it’s thousands of miles away, leaving our heroes/villains/outlaws/sheriff to fend for themselves in the wasteland. Within context this can be both beautiful and scary – and the director explores both in the film.
It’s extremely exciting to see a movie as good as Cop Car come from a filmmaker who is just starting to break out in the industry, and with its August release date, it’s a fantastic bright spot in one of the more notorious months of the year on the cinematic calendar. It’s not a big summer blockbuster by any definition, but it provides all of the thrills and laughs of a great one in a tight package.