Cast: : Kevin Bacon, Shea Whigham, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim
Director: Jon Watts
Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Much ink has already been spilled about Marvel and Sony's decision to tap director Jon Watts to direct the next Spider-man movie, which may unfairly subject his latest film Cop Car to unwarranted scrutiny, but there must have been something the studio heads saw in this low budget thriller as cross-over potential for big-budget comic book fare. Perhaps it was the film's opening scenes, which are strong in depicting the aimlessness of two kids running away from home without a discernible reason beyond boredom. Smartly, Watts doesn't layer on a tragic backstory for Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) or some broken home situation. Instead, he simply presents them as kids wandering through wide-open fields; cursing, joking, and making things up as they go along. During these early moments, the mobile camera steadily tracks Travis and Harrison as they stumble along, perfectly capturing that time in one's youth where possibilities seemed endless.
Discovering an abandoned police vehicle in the woods, the boys eventually find themselves having a blast playing mini-cops; driving around recklessly, blaring the siren, and in one gratuitous sequence, goofing around with loaded guns they find inside the car. What we learn in flashbacks is that the vehicle's owner, a local Sheriff played by Kevin Bacon with goofy intensity, left the car in the woods in order to dispose of a body. What exactly transpired leading him to that point is unclear, but what's immediately apparent is that these kid's idyllic fun zone is about to get serious very quickly.
Once suspicious noises start coming from the trunk and Bacon's panicked Sheriff begins communicating with the kids via police radio, whatever goodwill the film had built up begins to fall away. The problem here is that Watts is shamelessly aping the aesthetic of allowing scenes to drag on without a concrete story, but without the considerable directorial skill in maintaining the kind of tension that would cover over such a thin premise. Mood and atmosphere trumping plot and character motivations are fine in theory, but Watts never develops the mechanics of his script (co-written with Christopher D. Ford) enough for us to truly understand his characters, much less care about them. Even the obvious angle of putting two young boys in serious danger feels like a gimmick, and instead of deepening the bond between them as things start to unravel, they become sidelined in favor of a violent feud between Bacon's lawman and a jittery low-life played by Shea Whigham. An arbitrary female character is also introduced in the form of Camryn Manheim's worried small town citizen, whose presence is little more than a convenient plot device in order to set in motion a nihilistic finale.
Cop Car essentially becomes an exploitative inversion of the Amblin Entertainment brand from the 80s; wherein boys make awkward glances toward adulthood while getting into all kinds of pre-pubescent peril. However, Watts is a more unsympathetic director than Spielberg, and consequently turns his film into the opposite type of manipulation. Whereas Spielberg would have viewed Travis and Harrison's predicament as a means of exploring male friendship pushed to the breaking point with the absence of a strong father figure looming in the background, Watts simply treats everything like a clinical exercise in cat-and-mouse string pulling. What this means is that even though maudlin sentiment is kept at bay, there's really no core emotional investment in any of the characters. Bacon twirls his moustache and chews the scenery, but his Sheriff Kretzer is little more than a cartoon villain and provides mostly chuckles instead of menace, which would have been ideal if Watts was making a midnight B-movie, but his aims are clearly more serious-minded. What this film needed was either a tighter screenplay construction or a more lurid sensibility. It isn't brooding enough to qualify as a Blue Ruin-esque thriller, and the vibrantly macabre humor of the Coen Brothers (clearly one of Watts' influences) is largely absent. Instead, what began as an astute rendering of two young kids in thrall with their unlimited potential eventually dovetails into predictable genre territory; turning slack where it should be ratcheting up the suspense, and using the played-out children in peril motif to diminishing returns. That's too bad, since Bacon's backwoods moustache deserves better.