A film review by Craig J. Koban October 16, 2015


2015, R, 86 mins.


Kevin Bacon as Sheriff Kretzer  /  James Freedson-Jackson as Travis  /  Hays Wellford as Harrison  /  Shea Whigham as Trunk Man  /  Camryn Manheim as Bev

Directed by Jon Watts  /  Written by Watts and  Christopher D. Ford

COP CAR is as minimalist as they come.  

Its story is sparse and lean (maybe a bit too sparse and lean) as it chronicles two adventurous young boys searching for thrills that hijack a police cruiser and then are forced to deal with the consequences of such an act when the vehicle’s ultra corrupt cop comes looking for them.  Director Jon Watts' film thrives on not wasting too much time on exposition; he even keeps dialogue exchanges to a bare minimum in the story and lets the character's actions dictate the narrative.  It all culminates in a positively nerve-wracking and gripping climax that helps cement COP CAR as an uncommonly thrilling chase/road film, even when its premise strains modest credulity. 

The notion of two precocious children being able to so easily steal a “cop car” and then euphorically take it for leisurely joy rides in the country may not seem like an authentic possibility, but Watts certainly knows how to render his young characters with authentic strokes.  Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and his buddy Harrison (Hays Wellford) have apparently run away from home and are exploring the nearby countryside.  After bantering back and forth about things that every child, no doubt, has bantered about they come across an isolated area where they find a police cruiser that may or may not have been abandoned.  The two lads dare each other to get inside the car, which they eventually do, and then – in a pure bit of fantasy – they begin to imagine that they are behind the wheel and in a high speed chase.  Their fantasies soon become reality, though, when Travis finds the keys…and within no time the boys bolster up the nerve to start the engine and take it out for a spin. 



Unknown to Travis and Harrison is the fact that, yes, the squad car does indeed belong to an officer.  To make matters worse, the officer in question is on the very wrong side of the law.  Local Sheriff Kretzer (a mesmerizingly amoral Kevin Bacon) has clearly been up to no good, which is revealed in a nifty flashback sequence in the film after we are introduced to the boys.  Initially, it appears that the sheriff is just shirking his law enforcement duties when he parks his car, changes out of his uniform, and starts sipping some beer.  But then…he takes a body out of the trunk, drags it to a hidden area, throws it into a hole, and proceeds to pour quicklime all over it.  He notices that one of shoes has fallen off of the corpse, so he proceeds to go back to his car…which is now gone, seeing as the boys took it.  Using some desperate quick wits, Kretzer takes stock of his disastrous situation, now realizing that he must find out who stole his vehicle and secure it before the boys discover that there is another body in the trunk.  

Watts co-wrote COP CAR with ROBOT AND FRANK writer Christopher Ford and the screenplay revels in the whole nature of bad choices that spiral out of control into even worse bad choices.  They set up the particulars of the film with a stark immediacy, which helps give it a powerful forward momentum.  There are very little extraneous elements in the film and, for the most part, COP CAR works a majority of the time as almost a strangely intoxicating silent film.  Watts and Ford certainly show their appreciation for past cinematic influences in their own film; COP CAR has loving odes to childhood adventure films, not to mention that its road movie elements harkens back to classic grindhouse examples from the 1970’s.  Even though their film has children in it front and center, Watts and Ford go out of their way to remind audiences that this is not a children’s film; the longer the story progresses the more hauntingly dark, grim, and creepy it becomes.  

Watts also intuitively knows how to drum up tension in a few positively squirm-inducing moments featuring the boys.  There are scenes – like one involving Travis and Harrison playing around with a bullet proof vest and an assault rifle, with one looking down the barrel to see why it won’t shoot – that are undeniably hard to watch considering the possibilities of what might happen.  The children themselves are relatable, indeed, but are never truly presented as particularly sympathetic personas.  They say and do dumb things.  Their childlike naiveté frequently gets in the way of common sense.  They are, when it boils right down to it, uncaring thieves.  The fact that COP CAR portrays these kids with realistic strokes in terms of their mannerisms and interplay – and does so with a bleak detachment and without a hint of melodramatic stokes – ultimately makes the film so compulsively watchable. 

Of course, the misdeeds of these poor misguided kids don’t compare on any stratosphere to that of Kretzer, who takes the “crooked cop” moniker to whole new perverse heights.  You can really sense that Bacon is having a devilish amount of fun playing his sociopathic police officer, but it should be noted that he never plays his role up to broad and crude caricature.  Kretzer is a murderous psycho, to be fair, and he certainly is front and center in scenes that relay what a truly despicable and toxically untrustworthy human being he is, but he’s also a shrewd detective that makes up for his initial categorical blunder of leaving his car unattended by taking stock of his predicament and using his deductive skills to locate his stolen cruiser.  I loved the dichotomy of this sicko, as Bacon shows him both as a man that makes stupid blunders, but is also someone that’s smart enough to rescue himself from them.  The actor has rarely been this engagingly loose and fully immersed in a role: it's a fully realized portrait of pure evil. 

Watts demonstrates his command for the material in the final sections, when the boys are confronted by a second adult beyond Kretzer with impure motives (which leads to a remarkably graphic and threatening monologue by him as to what he’ll do to Harrison, Travis and their families if they rat on him) that then culminates with a brilliantly staged and painfully suspenseful standoff between him and Kretzer on a barren highway.  It’s at this vantage point in COP CAR where the initial childhood fantasies of the children give way to the harshly violent adult world of reality.  It’s too bad, however, that the screenplay didn’t provide more back-story to the characters to make the film’s thrilling conclusion have more dramatic heft.  COP CAR is an economical movie, to be sure, but on a character development front…it’s a bit too scattershot for its own good. 

That, and the whole crazy notion that two kids would be able to so easily steal a police car and elude capture for so long really, really strains credibility, which negatively pushes COP CAR out of the world of grim reality and into the realm of pure make-believe.  Nevertheless, Watts' film works, for the most part, as a mood piece that mixes black comedy and an undulating sense of unease and tension better than it should have considering its one-note premise.  Maybe COP CAR is not so much about who the characters are so much as it is about what they do throughout the course of the film’s brisk 86-plus minute running time.  On those levels, Watts has resourcefully crafted a fairly intoxicating film despite its flaws.  And Bacon has not been so compellingly bonkers in a role in years.  He takes what could have been a blatantly cartoonish villain role and instead makes it feel disturbingly real.  It takes a special type of focused and determined actor to pull off such a feat.

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