Across a landscape of rolling hills dotted with mooing cows and a gently swaying breeze, far from the strip mall suburbia of a mid-sized Colorado town, a pair of young boys head out in search of adventure, practicing their swear words for later use. “Damn!” one of them announces. “Damn,” the quieter one nervously replies. “Goddamn!” “Goddamn.” They steadily work their way up to “fuck” after an amusing meander into the many permutations of the word “ass,” headed up by the loud-mouthed Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), and that’s when Harrison (Hays Wellford) finally balks. That’s also about the time the two would-be runaways find the abandoned cop car.
The plot for Jon Watts’ “Cop Car” sounds like midnight movie fare: two mostly good-hearted boys run away from home and find a cop car in the middle of nowhere, and proceed to take it on a joyride. But while the first act of Watts’ film plays with that idea to amusing effect —the boys bellow “this is our cop car!” as they speed over those rolling hills, and we’re tempted to agree— the film steadily shifts into darker material that Watts’ languorous directorial style and slender script (penned alongside “Clown” collaborator Christopher D. Ford) can’t keep pace with.
Undoubtedly influenced by the Coen brothers’ filmography —the film features an amusing scene with a lanky bad guy running haphazardly up a hill, a respectful homage to the brothers’ work— Watts’ film is comprised of terrible coincidences, bad mustaches and a pervasive sense of desperation. It’s also wholly unable to live up to its obvious promise.
After Travis and Harrison hit the road, the feature flashes back to explain just how a sheriff’s cruiser ended up in the middle of nowhere, with Kevin Bacon appearing as a mustachioed officer who has nothing but bad intentions (and really bad planning skills). This first act of the film is neat, crafty, and extremely well-made, packed with cleverly delivered exposition and character introductions (including Camryn Manheim, a fellow traveler who essentially functions as the fool vis-a-vis Shakespearean mode) that feel natural while still delivering necessary information. But the rest of the film fails to deliver on this opening promise, grinding along to a surprisingly violent final act.
Despite the film’s queasy conceit, “Cop Car” isn’t so much tense as it is stressful —what’s more uncomfortable than throwing a cache of guns into a film already encompassing delinquent children and a stolen vehicle? Still, that kind of elicited emotion is cheap and does not translate into the genuine tension the film so clearly aims to convey. Loading the kids up with professional-grade firearms (which they continually point at themselves and each other) after a mostly well-mannered and decidedly non-bloody first act is the easy way out, and it detracts from the actual danger at hand.
Bacon appears to be having fun as baddie Sheriff Kretzer, who initially provides a menacing foil before giving way to the kind of hammy antics that would be more at home in a B-movie. Watts’ ability to convey characters’ intentions and motivations with the minimum of chatter certainly makes it clear that Kretzer is a bad dude, and Bacon’s single-minded fury is compelling to watch, but the character feels underwritten. Even chillingly delivered speeches about offing the boys and their families fail to make Kretzer feel like a fully fleshed out villain (and this is a guy we see dumping a body before the film’s first act is even complete).
Wellford and newbie Freedson-Jackson (the film is his first credit) pair well together, and Watts is clearly adept at writing and directing children. These kids feel like kids, complete with horrible decision-making abilities and quicksand morals. Watts’ early interest in exploring low-grade delinquency and the kind of wacky wish fulfillment only a kid could believably pull off are the film’s high points, and it’s too bad Watts couldn’t keep careening down that path, lights cheerfully flashing and sirens giddily blaring. [C]