The broad, wide open American flatlands offer a perfect movie backdrop for outlaws. From In Cold Blood to Badlands and No Country for Old Men, the windswept desert frames a killer’s dark gaze and abiding immorality. The cinema allows for particularly dramatic visions of the American West, forever untamed.
That conceit holds true in Jon Watts’ impressively taut neo-Western Cop Car. Everybody here acts as though they are operating at the far ends of the world, where there’s nothing after the horizon but more sky and nobody around to enforce rules of any kind.
We first meet the ten-year-old runaways Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) as they are striking out across open fields. They are heading from nowhere to nowhere, daring each other to utter increasingly obscene swear words. “How far do you think we’ve gone?” one asks. The other responds with the confidence of a kid flush with freedom, “fifty miles.” They come across a police cruiser, seemingly abandoned, with the keys still in the front seat. They hesitate but a moment, then egg each other on to touch the car as though they’re Indian braves counting coup. Rather quickly, their hesitation focuses less on whether they’re going to steal the car, but who’s going to drive.
As Travis and Harrison take off joyriding as if in the climactic scene of some one-wild-party-night teen movie, a flashback shows us why the car was sitting there in the first place. Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) was busy a good distance away, burying a corpse he hauled out of the trunk. Like most everyone in Cop Car, he’s neither diabolical nor innocent, but conniving, shambling from one bad decision to the next. By the time Kretzer gets back to where he left his Crown Victoria, the boys are long gone. Kretzer sets to recovering the vehicle, playing a malevolent Pied Piper to get back the cruiser and its contents — equipment, guns, and a surprise the boys aren’t aware they’ve taken with them.
The film sets up a basic mystery, namely, why is this officer burying bodies and seemingly jacked up on drugs? But director and co-writer Watts is smart enough to tease out that material, knowing that the real drama isn’t about Kretzer’s motivation, but instead, what will unfold when his trajectory intersects with the boys’. For much of Cop Car, Travis and Harrison are encapsulated in their own story, free to speed down long empty roads and play with all their cool new toys. They remain serenely unaware of the tumult building out of sight, as an increasingly manic Kretzer races across fields, steals cars, and weaves an elaborate web of lies to keep the dispatcher and his fellow cops from finding the car before he does.
This circle of circumstances tightens with a wiry intensity that plays nicely off the clean, wide-angle cinematography. Watts coaxes an unpredictable ferocity out of Bacon that buttresses the film’s atmosphere of barely controlled chaos. But as much it’s a slow-burn potboiler leading to a hectic final shootout, Cop Car also flecks the action with a mordant sense of humor. The adults, particularly Shea Whigam’s clownish desperado, barely appear able to keep their heads on straight at any given time. Meanwhile, the nerve-jangling scenes where Travis and Harrison play with Kretzer’s shotgun and assault rifle (staring down the barrel to see if it’s loaded) could serve as ads for gun safety.
If all this action played as a manic crime comedy of double crosses and mistakes, the movie might seem to border on the reckless. But it shows an understanding of consequences that recalls John Maclean’s more surreal but similarly thoughtful Slow West. After its early high-intensity run, Cop Car ends on a down note, contemplating the lost illusion of limitless freedom. Eventually all cars run out of gas.