MOVIE REVIEW: “Cop Car” (2015)
by Ellsworth Benchwood
Most Hollywood blockbusters prove that a movie in which a million things happen loudly can be really boring. Interesting then, that relatively little-known Jon Watts has been hired to direct the next big-budget “Spider-Man” re-boot, on the strength of his efficient low-budget 2015 thriller “Cop Car”. In it he displays a knack for patient, quiet observation of details in scenes wherein not much is happening.
Watts and producer/star Kevin Bacon got very lucky here in casting. Protagonists Travis and Harrison are ten-year old boys played by James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford with verisimilitude rarely seen from child actors. Generally ten-year old boys don’t have a firm grip on reality, and in this sense Jackson and Wellford play the roles very believably. They’re running away from their respective homes (confident that the beef jerky they’ve packed will provide plenty of sustenance for however long their trip might turn out to be), and after a short while they wonder aloud how far they’ve walked, speculating that it’s probably about fifty miles.
It’s probably more like 1.50 miles that they’ve walked, but in the movie’s rural Colorado setting, that’s far enough away from signs of civilization that an empty Quinlan County Sheriff’s cruiser parked in a clearing in the woods is a strange (and to the boys, intriguing) sight. Their initial trepidation gives way to curiosity and inspection, and after finding the keys they embark on an aimless joy ride across the barren countryside and eventually the desolate highway.
In a flashback we see how the car came to rest where the boys found it. The car’s owner, Sheriff Kretzer (played by Bacon), has a hidey-hole dug in the woods some distance away from the clearing, perfect for disposing of things like the two dead bodies in his trunk. He drags one of the bodies from the car through the woods to the hole, takes a smoke break and returns to the clearing to find the car gone.
In the first of many scenes in which Bacon reminds us why he’s a national treasure, he stands silently puzzled for a minute, then starts running, then stops, then walks back to the clearing, and again stands silently puzzled. The bodies in the trunk establish him as the bad guy so we’re not exactly “rooting” for him, but still, we get to think along with him, enjoying the contortions of his face as he implores his brain to figure out what might have happened and what to do about it.
The sheriff is not a smart guy, but he is resourceful in scrambling to cover the fact that his car has been stolen, using his cell phone to report to his dispatcher that he’s experiencing trouble with his car radio. At first he’s just trying to buy enough time to run (on foot, and then in a car he steals from a trailer park) to his house, grab his go-bag (guns, fake passports, cash, etc) and flee the country. But when his dispatcher later informs him that a motorist (played by Camryn Manheim) has reported seeing two young boys driving a police car on the highway, retrieving the car and keeping his corruption a secret becomes a possibility.
It’s a plum role for Bacon, in that he theretofore doesn’t know what we know about what happened to his car, and his friendly-sounding dispatcher (voiced by Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon’s real-life wife) doesn’t know what we know about him. The panic and desperation on his face contrast with the aw-shucks nice-guy tone of the words coming out of his mouth. He convinces her that the motorist’s story is one for the “nut file” since all department cruisers are accounted for, and instructs her to instruct all of his deputies to change the channels on their radios due to the “glitch” on the regular channel.
The tension of the sheriff’s desperate efforts to conceal his identity as a murderous scumbag is in stark contrast with the boys’ clueless frolic. When they discover high-powered rifles in the back seat of the car, they decide to pull over and test out the bullet-proof vest they’ve found on the floor. Wearing the vest, standing a respectable 10 or so paces away from Travis, Harrison thinks (while Travis counts aloud to three) to call out, “Aim for the vest!” Travis aims clumsily and tries to pull the trigger but it’s stuck – it doesn’t occur to him that the safety might be on, or that there even is a safety. He surmises that it must be out of bullets, and looks down the barrel to see.
These sequences showing the boys vying for Darwin Awards are excruciating but the movie isn’t merely being ghoulish for the sake of it – their cluelessness sets the stage for their discovery of the trunk’s contents. Apparently one of the “bodies” the sheriff intended to bury wasn’t quite dead, and when the boys encounter him (played by Shea Whigham, phenomenal), things become all too real very quickly.
Watts seems to find the right notes in these tonal shifts, often by merely depicting the characters’ realistic flaws and the challenges they present. So often in movies the characters are hyper-proficient at whatever they do, but “Cop Car” is comfortable with observing its characters being downright ineffectual.
After tricking the boys into loosening his restraints (“I’m a good guy!”), the bloodied man in the trunk forces them at gunpoint to radio the sheriff and indicate a desire to turn themselves in. He then locks them in the back of the car, takes two rifles and walks to one side of the road, then to the other side of the road, then back to the other side. He clearly has some notion that a good ambush involves concealment and strategic placement for getting a clear rifle shot, but finds that determining the right position for lying in wait for the target’s arrival is harder than you might think.
It’s a pleasure when the movie lets moments like this linger. When the sheriff drags the dead body, rolled up in a tarp, from the car to the grave in the woods, we see how hard it is to do that. The body’s appendages hang out of the tarp and drag on the ground, the body gets stuck on roots, etc., causing the sheriff much exertion and annoyance. When he steals the car from the trailer park, we get what feels like a full 5 minutes of his repeated attempts to unlock the car door with a shoelace. When he gets home and retrieves his go-bag, it’s hidden (along with his large stash of cocaine, professionally packaged) in a floor-safe in his bedroom closet. In order to get to the safe, he has to move a stack of “Vote Kretzer for Sheriff” yard signs.
In most thrillers the malevolent force has the upper hand, at least for most of the movie. In “Cop Car” Kevin Bacon has a field day with playing a villain (who somehow managed to fool a community into electing him sheriff) who’s literally on the run from the get-go, with protagonists who for most of the movie have no idea who he is or what’s happening to him. Given Watts’ style of direction, letting “Cop Car” take its time with things, it would be nice to see more of that in movies, and of course more Kevin Bacon, but we already knew that.