Set in a rural present day America, Jon Watt’s (Clown) latest film, Cop Car, soon polarizes into a struggle between good and evil. Good, in this instanced, is represented by two young boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), whereas evil comes in the guise of a police man’s uniform with the shady Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon).
Travis and Harrison are adventuring out in the sticks, bantering and dropping a few swears, as most boys do, and their discussion details that they’ve both sort of half-heartedly runaway from their lower-class homes. Before long the pair come across an abandoned cop car, with the driver’s side door ajar.
To the boys there’s an element of the surreal to the discovery – at first they’re certain the fuzz is on to them for running away – but before you can say “wish-fulfillment adolescent fantasy” they’re behind the wheel, given ‘er, playing cops and robbers on a grand scale.
Watts next backs the narrative up a bit to earlier that day, when the cruiser first pulls into the bucolic backdrop that the boys discovered it in, and here we see Kretzer, full of spite, beer swillin’, bloodied. There’s at least one body in the trunk, that he’s disposing of, and when he returns from dumping the body in a shallow grave, well damn, his patrol vehicle has gone 487A.
Cop Car is an exceptionally made and well-paced genre film that manages to extract believable performances from its young stars and Watts is a keen enough director to overture some startling and familiar imagery along the lines of Mark Twain or more contemporary coming-of-age fare like Stand By Me. While Cop Car never has the sustained impact of something like Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter – though how could it? – it does dervish into dark fantasy and other affectingly nightmarish scenarios.
Kretzer is a juicy role for Bacon, a violent, unpredictable, manipulative, coke-addled criminal in a sheriff’s skin. He’s the real deal as a law enforcer, and that he can and frequently does throw the helpful authorities off the scent of the boys only adds to the quagmire they’re helplessly sinking in.
Also, to Watts’ credit, Cop Car clips along with guile and even subtlety, taking in large draughts of black humor, staying serious, but keeping a comical purchase to what, for the young standard-bearers is a rite of passage journey. And moving in that direction Watts also can’t resist a little social polemic on gun culture and mistrust of authority.
The final chase scene is well-captured, the danger of the boys’ and their night flight to asylum slipping ever so out of reach. The strongest image of the film, and there are more than a few, is of the cop car, sirens wailing, police lights firing, but the headlights extinguished – the kids don’t know how to turn them on, after all – and as the cruiser hurtles through the desert at alarming speed, disaster and possible annihilation inundates them from all directions.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)