Jon Watts is like the cop car in Cop Car. When he was unexpectedly chosen to helm Sony and Marvel’s Spiderman reboot, many were critical. Who was this guy? Why had studio execs chosen him instead of a more experienced director? Like the kids in Cop Car, they seemed to have found an unexpected surprise hiding in the plains of some unmentioned state. And, like the kids in the film, they found something far more volatile than initially thought.
Although Cop Car is only Watts’ second film, you wouldn’t know by watching it. Calling to mind the films of the Coen Brothers, along with recent examples of southern gothic, such as True Detective, Cop Car is thrilling in the best way. It strips itself down to the barest essentials of the thriller and uses its minimalism in order to heighten the subtle thrills of the genre. Scenes of young boys playing with loaded guns, a mysterious body, unexplained cocaine. Some of these elements make sense, and some are confusingly abstruse, but a unifying trait is that the sparseness of the whole affair — the desolate photography of wide-open plains, the barebones soundtrack, the subtle humor — serve to bring the audience to attention, to grip them to what is happening without the use of overt musical cues or over-stylized photography.
The film moves quickly, getting to the point within the first five minutes. As our young heroes, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), find and commandeer a mysterious cop car, Watts’ uses Hitchcockian dramatic irony to unveil our villain, giving a deadly weight to the boys’ hijinks. What follows is a nail-biting pursuit of our clueless heroes by a ruthless and delightfully creepy sheriff (Kevin Bacon). Like the soundtrack, cinematography, and cast list, the set-up is simple. However, this simple set-up is all that is needed to intensify the boys’ story.
What’s most surprising about Cop Car is how accurately it portrays adolescence and rebellion. Our heroes seem to be two young boys running from home, they trade swear words, give dares. Generally, they’re extremely realistic characters and naturalistic actors, and a perfect foil for Kevin Bacon’s super-intense performance. One of the reasons his character works, perhaps, is that our protagonists give Cop Car its ground. It ends up that we focus on them and their experience and accept Bacon’s character despite his ferocious intensity. When he growls “You don’t… steal… a fucking… COP CAR!” it doesn’t even feel alienating. In a way, the story is from the boys’ perspective, and therefore any figure of authority seems more terrifying then they might actually be.
However, what goes up must come down, and as the story goes on it begins to lose some of its velocity. The metaphorical car sputters, and the film’s unresolved questions take away from its full impact. Cop Car takes place in the here and now, and it’s fine for the boys because the audience need only know that they are children with a rebellious streak.
But what about the sheriff? In his quest to make a bare-bones thriller, Watts’ seems to forget that Sheriff Kretzer needs some kind of motivation. As it stands, it seems that he’s just taking action for the sake of following the plot. Instead of giving even a little bit of conclusive explanation, the film only drops mystifying hints as to his backstory, and they’re simply not enough. Yes, it’s true that the audience is watching it from the boys’ point of view, but since they take a backseat to the Sheriff’s conflict at a point in the film, it seems reasonable to demand a bit more explanation. The unsolved questions only serve to detract from the story.
In addition to that, the latter half of the film is captivating enough, but effectively loses drive once other characters take the front seat. We know vaguely who they are, but why should we care? It’s not their story. It’s not they who stole the cop car. Add to that an ending that seems more fitting for a slasher film and you get the distinct sense that something isn’t working right under the hood.
The Blu-Ray from Universal Pictures comes with the standard Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Copy, subtitles, and chapters. The extras are limited to a very short featurette on the making of the film. Unfortunately for fans of behind-the-scenes videos, it’s far too brief.
All that being said, however, Cop Car is still a decidedly solid film. Echoing the spirit of ’70s car thrillers, low on sets but high on action, Cop Car succeeds as well as it does because of a cohesive aesthetic, great acting, and a balanced mix of nihilism and optimism. Although it’s clear that there’s much more that can be mined from the premise, it’s fun enough that you can ignore its faults and come along for the ride. With Cop Car, Jon Watts has effectively communicated that he is a director to watch.