Cop Car Dir. Jon Watts

[Focus World; 2015]

Styles: thriller, film soleil
Others: Blood Simple, Blue Ruin

Jon Watts’ Cop Car is a uniquely entertaining film because it excels at communicating two very different states of being: innocence and frantic tension. The film, which Watts co-wrote with Christopher D. Ford, manages to absolutely nail that certain innocence of youth with its two main protagonists, introduced learning and trying to master swear words as they embark on running away from home. That same innocence of the two young boys carries forward through the film, ending up feeding into the frantic tension as they are completely unaware of the chaotic and dark world into which they’ve entered. It’s a masterful job of maintaining two distinct tones in the script and using each to compliment and highlight the other. For this reason, the film, which has very little actually occur within it, ends up becoming an economic, bleak thriller that pulls viewers in quickly and demands their attention throughout its run time.

Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) are running away from home with just some walking sticks and one Slim Jim between them when they come across what appears to be an abandoned cop car in the woods. Once they find out the keys are in the ignition, they decide to go for a joyride in the car and embark on a journey. Of course, that car belongs to someone, a Sheriff (Kevin Bacon) who appears to be the most crooked cop since Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. The Sheriff desperately needs to track down the car, both for his own pride and because of the questions it will raise about his nefarious practices, and he needs to do it before the boys discover whatever is locked away in that trunk.

The film is gorgeously shot and almost all of it (save for a gripping conclusion) takes place in the bright sun of some desolate southern or southwestern town. The cinematography takes in the desolate and far reaching landscape as the boys make their way across it, almost like a fable in which they are entering a harsh, unforgiving world where the moral is to avoid big bad wolves like the Sheriff. But those sunlit scenes also further underscore the innocence of the two boys, even as they play with the guns and handcuffs and other police ephemera they find in the car. To them, the sunlight is just part of their innocent journey and bathes them in light; to the Sheriff, it poses the potential threat of exposing all of his many misdeeds to the cold light of day. Again, Watts does a great job of using one distinct detail to play up both sides of the story that should be competing but end up merely building on top of each other towards a horrendous climax that is all but certain to occur.

A fantastic cast that truly embodies both sides of this coin is a big reason Cop Car works as well as it does. Freedson-Jackson and Wellford are incredibly natural in their depictions of young boys just out for an adventure, quickly finding themselves in way over their heads. The script perfectly captures that impressionable age when boys dare each other to do stupid things or else think they know how the world works based on TV and films. Even when things turn bad, they never lose that innocence of trying to determine if people are good guys or bad guys. Bacon is perfect in his chaotic evil role, determined to do what he has to in order to retrieve his car and keep his house of cards from falling down around him. There’s no backstory given to any of the cast, no reason for the boys running away or what the Sheriff has been up to that has landed him with stockpiles of cash, guns, and drugs. Just like the boys, the audience is simply placed into this world where there are bad guys and good guys, and they are thrust along with the ride as things become more desperate for the Sheriff and more dangerous for the boys. Also, special attention should be paid to Shea Whigham in a role late into the film that is simply dripping with menace that’s reminiscent of the part he played in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, albeit with more control of his circumstances and much more sinister intentions.

Cop Car is a simple tale told well: boys find car, man wants his car back. But there are scenes that compound the sense of foreboding and mounting tension that will linger with audiences long after the credits roll. The audience is never sure exactly where anything is headed, but they know that it can’t be anywhere good as long as a man like the Sheriff is involved. By doing justice to both sides of the story, the innocent and the guilty, Watts has crafted a story that is engaging and feels real, while never diluting the joy of the children or the menace of their antagonist. The boys find themselves caught up in a web of lies and criminal deeds that they never truly grasp, and thanks to excellent direction, writing, and casting, the audience will also find themselves caught up in that web, loving every minute of it.

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