By Elias Savada.
Somewhere out in the middle of America, amongst the Colorado cattle fields and its arrowhead-laden landscape, we find Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and his long-haired buddy Harrison (Hay Wellford) roaming the plains. These ten-year-olds are either innocent pioneers out for a long, extended walk or have left home for unknown, yet apparently punishable, reasons. One has a step-dad. It’s never really explained in the lean, mean day-in-the-wild-life machine of this film written by Christopher Ford (Robot and Frank) and directed by Jon Watts. There’s no need to add the extra baggage of “where are my children?” (Although if they were missing, somebody would have known and told authorities, right?) It’s just a diversion in a taut script that offers a bleak view of one of the few bad apples amongst the people who enforce the laws of the U. S. of A.
Meanwhile back on the range, Travis spouts out juvenile curse words, egging on his companion to repeat each one. There’s a reluctance to echo the F word, presumably to let us know which of the two is the more careless. But this degree of difference matters little, when this childish game of Dare takes on an added, reckless dimension after they discover an abandoned sheriff’s car from fictional Quinlan County (but, yes, the film was actually shot in Colorado). Though they can barely see over the steering wheel, Travis puts his size 7 shoe to the pedal and Watts’ Cop Car is off to the races. And what a thrill ride it is! Their joy behind the wheel, playing with the siren and looking for video games on the police computer only last so long, and trouble arrives in the guise of an angry lawman who’s a-growlin’ for his vehicle. That would be Sheriff Mitch Krewster, played with a fierce-eyed conviction by a frowny mustachioed Kevin Bacon, with close-cropped hair and anger even shorter. He’s got a blood-curdling back story to boot.
Watts, now attached to the Spider-Man (what, again?) reboot due in 2017, helmed last year’s Clown, a hardcore horror entry which he also co-wrote with Ford and which was produced by terror maestro Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel). It features a kid-munching monster spreading coulrophobia throughout the land.
Watts has fun building tension at the right moments (heisting an old model car with a shoestring, the kids playing with real guns as if they were toys, or when the boys open the car’s trunk). And there’s a marvelous use of our country’s deserted back roads as a playground for our youth, oblivious to the consequences. Bad parenting? Or just an off-color world in desperate need of child proofing. The story tosses in a passing motorist (a fine Camryn Manheim) with an escalating sense of responsibility. Shea Whigman, who played the crooked sheriff Eli (no relation) in the HBO’s series Boardwalk Empire, makes an unconventional entrance and provides some scary moments himself.
Bacon, meanwhile, gives a tremendous performance, one hobbled together in just a few weeks of filming. Obviously he liked the role so much he also came aboard as an executive producer on the film (or perhaps exchanged some of his acting fee for such recognition). There’s a off-kilter, haunting menace burning behind his eyes.
Frolicsome and fearsomely small minds are on display in Cop Car (which premiered early this year at Sundance), and not all of them belong to the children. There may be something bad going down, but there’s also something dangerously stupid afoot. Moments in the film remind me of a stripped down version of Vanishing Point, Richard Sarafian’s nail-biting 1971 B-movie car chase thriller, especially the nice wide horizons photographed here by Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Seiple. Megan Brooks and Andrew Hasse do a fine job editing, too.
The best way to enjoy Cop Car is with the windows all the way down. Nice and breezy.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.