COP CAR (2015) review
written by: Jon Watts and Christopher Ford
produced by: Cody Ryder, Alicia Van Couvering, Sam Bisbee, Andrew Kortschak & Jon Watts
directed by: Jon Watts
rating: R (for language, violence and brief drug use)
runtime: 86 min.
U.S. release date: August 7, 2015 (limited) and August 14, 2015 (limited, iTunes, Amazon & On Demand)
“Cop Car” is the one from Sundance about the two boys who take Kevin Bacon’s car for a joy ride. Bacon is a cop, hence the simplistic title. Sounds like it could be hilarious as we watch a couple kids rack up the hijinks or it sounds like these two hellions are in a world of increasing doo-doo. It also sounds pretty straight forward, especially with a running time of 86 minutes. This is what I knew of director Jon Watts’ new film before actually seeing it.
I also knew that it was apparently this film that inspired Marvel Studios to tap Watts to helm the latest inevitable iteration of Spider-Man (expect it in 2017) – which isn’t the first time a major studio plucked a virtually unknown director from the festival circuit to direct an established product (ahem, the last two “Amazing Spider-Man” movies) . So, with an appreciation of stories involving a natural depiction of boyhood (like “Son of Rambow” and “Mud”), a curiosity for anything Kevin Bacon and to see what Marvel sees in this director, I cautiously approached this “Cop Car”.
When we meet 10 year-olds, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), they are embarking on an afternoon hike in rural Colorado, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. They’ve apparently run away from home and since it isn’t a planned run away (aka, no backpacks or sleeping bags), what is being told is immediately relatable. We’ve all run away at some point growing up, even if it’s just running out of our house and escaping to a friend’s place, just to make our parental unit(s) worry some. Maybe it was something our parents said or did that compelled us to bolt, but deep down we knew – or at least I did – I’d have to eventually return. That’s the vibe you get with these two kids here.
This is a thriller though, so any expectation for a feel-good coming-of-age film dissipates quickly. As the two boys work their way through a field, they come across an abandoned cop car (yes, that titular one). They look around for an officer or anyone belonging to the vehicle with a lone beer bottle left on the hood, but find no one. The boys impulsively decide to take off in the car – playing with the sirens, lights, radio and (of course) speed – as they joy ride across the desolate two-line highways. Geography plays a significant role in “Cop Car”, since these boys would never get away with such an adventure in an urban area for as long as they do here. The wide open spaces of the fields and roads offer a seemingly endless space for their joy ride.
In real life, we know how these events turn out and rarely do we find everyone involved winding up in one piece or alive. Still, we can relate to their temptation, their curiosity and their reckless abandon, but we are nevertheless afraid for them. Of course, in such a story, we know that the owner of the missing car will be revealed. We wonder who the owner is and what his/her reaction will be, but the ominously foreboding music by Phil Mossman (and his 13 year-old son, Lucas) has us connecting the dots. Plus, knowing Bacon is in it kind of makes it obvious. And again: it’s a thriller.
It turns out the car belongs to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon, in full-on shifty mode with a bristly mustache), who was busy disposing a body when the boys happened upon his cop car. He’s not too happy when he learns it’s gone (as is his beer) and sets out to find his car ASAP while trying to cover up his less-than-exemplary behavior. Meanwhile, Travis and Harrison continue to spin their wheels into deeper doo-doo when they discover a mysterious passenger (Shea Whigham, “Take Shelter”) in the trunk, which only fuels Sheriff Kretzer’s desperation to retrieve the vehicle and leave the whole incident in the dust. This can’t end well for the boys.
The first half hour or so of “Cop Car” deftly handles the innocence of two precocious boys unintentionally getting into trouble. We’re patiently introduced to who they are, how impressionable Harrison is and how Travis is clearly the leader (or tries to be). There’s one in every pair. There’s a natural build-up once the titular car is introduced that feels real – the boys taunt each other with dares, touching the car, sitting in the car, etc. Christopher Ford (“Robot and Frank”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Watts doesn’t give these young actors stereotypical roles to embody – they’re clearly not straight-up juvenile delinquents and neither of them are mean-spirited or cruel-hearted.
In fact, Travis and Harrison are quite the opposite, which makes them all the more relatable and easy to follow. That’s refreshing. When they find the car, the aren’t looking to cause havoc. They just get lost in a spirit of fun-loving curiosity and imagination. If anything, this vehicle serves as a device to further their escape from their monotonous lives where their looked at as kids, despite being at the cusp of adolescence where they want to be taken seriously. They are far removed from the dire reality of their situation and get lost relying on past video game play as their only experience in the driver’s seat. Freedson-Jackson and Welford both have well-suited dispositions for their respective roles and often come across as if they’re reacting to a real-life situation, not acting. That speaks well to their talent and the Watts’ work with them here.
Before “Cop Car” gets to Bacon’s Sheriff, the film idles in nuanced characterization with Watts often relying on silence to tell the story during these moments, which conveys a strong sence of mood and tone. He and Ford make a conscious decision to show these boys as kids as they play around with the police radio and try and figure out how to fire a gun. Granted the scenes with weapons straddle a level of humor and unnerving anxiety bordering for their safety, especially considering how often fatal mishaps are reported in the news.
When Kretzer comes into the story though, the film takes a more menacing tone and also a little cartoony (not a negative). That’s partly due to Bacon hamming it up (sorry) – but never to the point of eye-rolling – and also due to Watt’s eagerness to add some levity to an already mounting intensity. When Whigham’s character gets screen time though, we fear the boys face a threat that cannot comprehend. Unfortunately, Bacon’s character becomes way too outlandish and cruel in the third act to be seen as a real threat. We fear for the boy’s safety and what Kretzer may do once he catches up to them as it is, but the conclusion here seems to suddenly crank up the crazy at the cost of the innocence of the boys.
Speaking of pursuing the boys, there’s another character, a passerby named Bev (Camryn Manheim), who gets involved in the search. This character feels unnecessary and doesn’t help the film any, ultimately resulting in a jolt of graphic violence. Considering the film’s length, “Cop Car” doesn’t quite have the time to adequately handle additional characters other than the boys and the Sheriff – even then, characterization is kind of thin.
Watts direction here is just fine, offering a solid set-up and palatable tension, but it’s the film’s narrative that needs some pruning. I’m left scratching my head though as to what Marvel Studios saw in this film to offer him Spider-Man. I’m at a loss in general as to why major studios offer franchises to directors who’ve only delivered one or two indies (ahem, “Jurassic World” and “Fantastic Four”), but that’s a tangent in and of itself. If it wasn’t for Watts’ third act jerking us around with jolts of violence and cruelty, I’d say this was a strong major debut – but, I can’t.
Like other recent films involving children in peril, “Cop Car” inevitably contains violent action sequences and cruel interaction. Bottom line: I wasnt feeling the ending Watts and Ford gives us. Although Watts delivers an unexpected conclusion, it leaves viewers with a sudden thud; one that drops the weight of reality on our laps. I felt like these poor boys had learned their lesson already and suffered enough by then.