Cop Car (2015) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language, violence and brief drug use
Running Time: 88 min.
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson, Shea Wigham, Camryn Manheim
Small role: Kyra Sedgwick (voice)
Director: Jon Watts
Screenplay: Jon Watts, Christopher D. Ford
Review published August 26, 2015
Kevin Bacon (R.I.P.D., Crazy Stupid Love) stars as a corrupt sheriff named Kretzer whose car gets stolen by two bored ten-year-old runaways. the bolder Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and the more shy Harrison (Wellford, Carver), who come across the seemingly abandoned vehicle while exploring a secluded field after traversing many miles from home. The boys find the keys and decide to take it for a spin, having a bit of fun, not knowing what to do, but they can't resist the opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. What they don't know if that the crooked sheriff is out there in the middle of nowhere up to no good, and he's desperate to get the car back before his criminal activities are found out by the his colleagues.
A good deal of the interest in Cop Car will come from those curious to see the work that the mostly unknown director pegged to bring the next iteration of Spider-Man to film has produced, both as writer and director. It's doubtful that you'll glean much from Cop Car that will give you an accurate vision of what he might turn in from an action super-hero perspective, as this film is a much different animal, based more on character and moody build-up than in exciting thrills, comedy, and derring-do. However, most people will likely feel Watts is certainly capable of delivering quality, as his directorial instincts are quite good, despite what must be a modest budget.
At times, Cop Car feels like an indie movie in the vein of recent critical darlings by Jeff Nichols or David Gordon Green, coming-of-age stories that emphasize mood, exploration, and the dangerous lives of not-so-nice adults creeping in to the innocence of youth. Patience is generally required, as Watts lets scenes play out quite long for what they show, such as watching the sheriff spend several minutes trying to pull up the lock on an old car door with a shoelace -- a noose that is tied to try to save a livelihood (add saving one's Bacon joke here) instead of trying to take one. The characters themselves feel like they might have drifted in here from a Coen Brothers film, where not-too-bright people do not-too-bright things, though the Coens would likely have played up the humorous aspects of their follies to the point where it elevates to a black comedy.
The characters, at the very least, do some interesting things. Sheriff Kretzer knows his cojones are in the proverbial vice, so it is with some amusement that we watch such a lowlife crooked cop squirm as if there is a magnifying glass between him and the sun, hoping that by some miracle he will be able to figure out a way to get his car back without anyone finding out just what he'd been up to that caused him to lose sight of it in the first place. It's also entertaining, and more than a little scary, to see boys approach and then take over the cop car as if they encountered a magic dragon. They get progressively more comfortable with what they're doing, and eventually begin playing with the contents of the police vehicle, which includes shotguns, a defibrillator, CB, bullet-proof vest, crime-scene tape, and Kretzer's gun belt (with pistol).
Though the movie rarely plays for obvious thrills, tension shoots sky high when seeing the kids cavalierly point weapons in each other's faces, clearly not knowing that their lives will end in less than a heartbeat on whether the safety is on or off at the time. Things take an even more insidious turn when they take a look at what's in the trunk, which I won't spoil save to say that, once peered into, their likelihood of survival should Kretzer discover them goes down exponentially.
If there's a knock on Cop Car, other than its deliberately slack pace, it's the spottiness of the performances by the three leads. Kevin Bacon is a terrific actor in most parts, but character acting has never been his strength, and in his mannered attempt to simulate a baritone small-town sheriff, complete with an overly pronounced cop-stache, he seems like he's more camp caricature than fleshed-out character on a few occasions. The younger players, Wellford and Freedson-Jackson, aren't bad, but they aren't quite at a level where they play for fear, anguish, or sadness with complete conviction, which does often introduce into a film that should have played for a bit of a slice of life the artifice of film, where we are constantly reminded we're watching a movie with characters instead of a real story with genuine people.
Beautifully shot to the point of being enjoyable just to look at it even without a story on top of it, with a good sense of character and slow build-up of tension, Cop Car keeps the viewer interest, though the slack narrative and not-always-convincing acting performances Bacon and the two boy reminds us we're watching a movie when we should be viewing the circumstances as if it were a slice of life. Nevertheless, we grow increasingly interested to see how things will shake out, and whether the clearly-in-well-over-their-head boys can manage to escape from their various predicaments without losing their lives in the process. Though the film might have worked better without Bacon trying so hard to act like a macho cop, as a slow-burn suspenser that hooks you in to the plight of wayward young boys who appear to have no easy escape in view, Cop Car is, pun intended, a potent vehicle that's often arresting.
©2015 Vince Leo