“Cop Car” is about two kids who get more than they wish for after they come across a vehicle they should not have messed with. While there are a number of uneasy scenes of these naughty kids being put into possible dangers, the movie handles them with enough tension to engage and grip us while showing considerable tactfulness behind the screen, and that is one of several reasons why it works on both levels of narrative and technique.
Its premise is quite simple. The opening scene shows a quiet rural area somewhere around the southwestern region of US, and we meet two plain young kids walking across a wide field as they are blurting out profanities to each other just for passing their time. Although the movie is not very specific about their current situation, it is implied that they ran out of their homes for some reasons, and we later get a few little details about their background from their conversations. While Harrison (Hays Wellford) has lived with his grandmother, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) has lived with his mother and her new husband, and it looks like they were not particularly happy at their respective homes.
When they happen to spot a police patrol car, they are immediately alarmed by it, but they soon become playful once they realize that there is no one around them and the vehicle. They throw a stone at the car. They sneak toward the car as if it were a scary dog lying in sleep. They walk around the car as looking for any fun they might have with it. When they find that the car is somehow left unlocked, they gladly go inside it for more fun they can have – and they cannot possibly be more excited when they discover the car key.
We soon see how they have a big joyous fun in several ways not so recommendable to any children around their age. Although they do not know enough about driving, they certainly know how to grab the steering wheel and push pedals besides igniting the car engine, and they freely drive their stolen vehicle across the wide field where there is virtually no one except cows peacefully grazing or moving on the field.
Of course, there is a man looking for that car. The flashback scene following right after the boys’ theft introduces Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), a corrupt local policeman who was in the middle of his annoying business of burying two bodies when the boys stole his car. When he comes back from the burying spot, he is naturally befuddled by its unexpected disappearance, and then he becomes panic because that can lead to the full exposure of his latest crime for a good reason.
While our little boys continue to have more fun with his car, the movie also focuses on how Kretzer tries to take care of his urgent problem before it is too late. Although he cannot certainly report the theft, he can pull some strings to hide it for a while from the folks at his police station, and we get several suspenseful scenes as Kretzer manages to skirt around the constant danger of being noticed by others.
Around the end of its second act, it becomes pretty clear to us that the story is heading to a certain inevitable point, but the movie keeps building tension steadily under the confident direction by the director Jon Watts, who wrote the screenplay with Christopher D. Ford. The movie is morbidly humorous at times as shown from a darkly amusing moment when Travis and Harrison recklessly drive the car along the road at high speed, and some of you will probably be disturbed by one particular scene where they play with a rifle and a bulletproof vest while apparently having no idea on what kind of danger they are playing with.
It surely helps that its two young lead actors Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson give natural performances to hold our interest, and it is often compelling to watch the dynamics of the relationship between their problematic characters. As Harrison and Travis push or pull each other in their interactions which are not entirely innocuous, we come to sense the poor environment which has shaped them respectively, and how they come to tumble toward a big trouble waiting for them is believable in its every step. They think they can have any fun without no one to stop them, but then they get themselves stuck in a situation far worse than they have ever imagined – and they may not have much chance to survive the day if they are not lucky.
On the opposite, Kevin Bacon, who also participated in the production of the film as one of its executive producers, provides a solid performance as the boys’ dangerous opponent. Rather than resorting to overacting, Bacon wisely stays on slow-burn mode while his character tries his best to have the situation under his control, and he is especially good when his character is slowly being cracked behind his cool façade. As two substantial supporting characters in the film, Camryn Manheim and Shea Whigham do their respective jobs as demanded, and Bacon’s wife Kyra Sedgwick provides a brief voice performance as the police station dispatcher.
During its relatively short running time (88 minutes), “Cop Car” is lean and efficient in its impressive handling of mood and story. The cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Seiple is commendable for how it effectively establishes the static but uneasy atmosphere through its occasional shots of remote landscapes, and I was involved in the story thanks to good performances even when I observed the characters from the distance. After all, the boys had it coming from the start, didn’t they?