By Zak Attack
From the blocky opening credits emblazoned on the screen accompanied by flashing police lights and a throbbing score, Cop Car announces itself bravely and boldly. Although not as dependent on a retro feel as recent throwback thrillers like The Guest or It Follows, director Jon Watts’ sophomore feature is invested in establishing a pervasive sense of dread right off the bat. The tale follows two troublemaking, yet mostly innocent youths who discover a corrupt sheriff’s cruiser abandoned in a field and take it on an ill-advised joyride. Quickly it becomes clear that the sheriff needs the car back and may get violent in his attempt to recover it.
Using some sly storytelling techniques, much of the action is told from the point-of-view of the two young children. The movie patiently watches them try to complete basic tasks like figure out the purpose of a portable defibrillator or teach themselves to drive a car through trial and error. When Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), the more courageous of the two boys, figures out that “P means stop and R goes backwards,” Harrison (Hays Wellford) replies with the authority of fake knowledge: “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” This level of one-upsmanship and ultimately going too far is a key element as the movie devolves from a couple of rebellious youngsters at play to a foreboding fable of fear.
Even though the two main characters may be unaware of the consequences of their actions, Cop Car as a film broadcasts a strong sense of respect for the danger the children have to face. The eerie score by Phil Mossman and intimately static camerawork make sure that there are equal levels of unease in regards to both accidental and deliberate violence. At times these scenes of anticipating harm towards children are cringeworthy in their potentially provocative nihilism, but mostly the tone is kind of funny. It’s just that the laughter is primarily of the nervous variety.
Despite this focus on the children, Cop Car also regularly displays extended, somewhat cryptic scenes of the panicking Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) navigating the treacherous waters of finding his automobile without alerting his law enforcement colleagues. Even scenes as simple as watching him break into a beat-up vehicle in a trailer park are chair-clutchingly intense. Kevin Bacon successfully juggles his natural charm with his character’s menacing actions. Kretzer’s often erratic and somewhat bumbling behavior gets the audience in a mindset of pure unpredictability.
Meanwhile, Wellford and Freedson-Jackson are naturalistic in their roles and it makes their plight instantly relatable. Even someone who wasn’t nearly as much of a juvenile delinquent as these two kids can understand the allure of stealing a police car. They so easily wave off the potential for trouble in light of a few escalating dares and the opportunity for forbidden fun. Sometimes the young actors are asked to shift gears from oblivious to gleeful to jealous to terrified in the blink of an eye and they are more than up to the task, even through the feverish, dreamlike climax.
Although Cop Car doesn’t tackle any political issues regarding recent police-related current events head-on, it cleverly and obliquely comments on the larger idea of authority every time the previously nervous children become immediately empowered behind the wheel of the cruiser. The whole affair calls to mind the dark elements unexplored in last year’s Let’s Be Cops told through the vein of Tom Sawyer’s dangerously fanciful slave rescue in the final act of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, if directed with the cruel aplomb of William Friedkin. The naïveté of rambunctious youth juxtaposed with complicated adult danger provides for a gripping movie and at 86 minutes it’s about as tight a film as can be.
4 Arnolds out of 5
Cop Car is in select theatres August 7th, with a VOD release on August 14th.
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd Grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
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