A sharp calling card, writer-director Jon Watts’s Cop Car is an indie genre piece that’s short, simple, and builds to surprisingly intense suspense. It’s a darkly logical thriller set on the dusty outskirts of a small town out west, where we find two boys wandering away from home and into a whole lot of trouble. Watts, with co-writer Christopher D. Ford, makes a fine amalgamation of John Dahl’s neo-noir thrillers (like Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, and Joy Ride) and loping Grimm fairy tale logic. Two kids head off the beaten path where they find something they shouldn’t, an emblem of grown-up power that’ll cause them more trouble than it’s worth. They don’t know any better. They’re just kids, giddy with make-believe and magical thinking, fascinated by things they only know about from TV. When they find a cop car abandoned in the woods, of course they’re ready to explore. When they see keys in the ignition, and can’t see a cop in sight, they transgress, punishment inevitably following.
So we have two little pigs – “We’ll just tell ‘em we’re cops!” one boy says, ready to take their pretend up a notch to impersonation, unaware of how unlikely it is any adult would ever think 10-year-olds are police – attracting the attention of one very bad wolf. Danger and punishment takes the wolfish form of a crooked cop desperate to get his car back. You see, he left his car to take care of some shady business in the woods. When he emerges to find the theft, he’s livid, panicked, snapping into action. He simply must get the vehicle back before his colleagues realize what he’s been up to. The gleaming guns he holsters certainly don’t make the boys’ fates look safe. The cop is played by Kevin Bacon, in a performance of finely dried ham, all lean determination and eccentric intensity, like an inarticulate Coen brothers’ specter sprung from a madhouse.
The kids are equally unreal, or rather movie real. The young actors (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) are an awkwardly perfect blend of childlike imagination and self-aware artifice, boys being boys being boys, as realistically frustrating as that sounds. They’re playfully vulgar, trading swear words back and forth in the opening scene like the language is a totem of adulthood to which they’re staking a claim. When they drive off in the cop car, they’re adding an element of palpable danger to their harmless run-away-from-home plans. It turns a stereotypical benign act of pre-teen rebellion into something very real, even before Bacon’s sweaty and grim visage enters the pursuit. I watched with a pit in my stomach as the kids explored the guns in the vehicle, or accidentally swerved across the centerline much to the concern of an approaching car. But the man chasing them seems just as deadly. This can’t end well.
By the time character actor Shea Whigham shows up as a desperate bloodied figure caught in the middle of the missing car conflict, the movie turns from a wandering boy’s adventure – like a filthier live action Disney – into a thin and taught thriller. It’s a chunk of beef jerky of a picture, dry and tough, unsatisfying compared to a richer meal, but containing a peculiar and not entirely unwelcome brisk salty snap. To belabor a metaphor that’s already straining, I’ll add that Watts and his cinematographers (Netflix’s Daredevil’s Matthew J. Lloyd and the “Turn Down for What” video’s Larkin Seiple) dress up humble aims in a slick package. A lovely visual sense of space culminates in a spectacularly photographed use of light in its final sequence, the lights of town appearing as a sudden beacon in the dark of night, as the final ramifications of climactic violence settles. This film is simple and straightforward, compelling and compact.