Two young friends, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Welford) have decided to run away from home, so they are walking across a field in the opposite direction of their town, amusing themselves by reciting every swear word they know. The further they get into the countryside, the more isolated they get, to the extent that they are not expecting to see another soul which makes it all the more surprising when they discover a Sheriff’s car sitting on a dirt road apparently abandoned. Tentatively at first, they investigate the vehicle until they find the driver’s door is open and get in. Then they find the keys. Then they start the engine. Then they start driving. Then the Sheriff (Kevin Bacon) comes after them.
Somebody must have been impressed with director and co-writer Jon Watts, for on the strength of this moody, sardonic thriller he was hired to helm a Spider-Man movie, though not everyone was impressed, mostly because there were certain rules and conventions that he did not abide by. For the most part he was building up his distinctive mood, sort of Badlands crossed with the Coen brothers at their most contemplative and sinister, for his two junior stars to play out the story that brought them inexorably to danger, initially through their own mischievous actions and later because those actions had attracted the attention of the Sheriff, played with clammy relentlessness by Bacon.
He being an actor just as accomplished on either side of the moral divide, and as we witness him disposing of a body with five minutes of his character’s introduction we can guess he was up to no good even before he began tracking down the boys who had his car. Yet interestingly, Watts was in no mood to spell everything out, as if he expected the audience to have seen plenty of thrillers before on television and the movies so did not need to be told every little detail of what was going on. This irked those viewers hoping, nay, expecting the plot to be wrapped up tidily in a bow and therefore Cop Car was too easily dismissed, but the power of the open ending, not to mention the vagueness on everything except that which was necessary, was not easily dismissed.
Along the journey there were scenes which could be darkly comic or nervy depending on how anxious you would become when the safety of children were concerned. The two boys may seem naïve, but you have the impression they didn’t have much useful contact with adults especially considering they appear to have wandered off without their supposed loved ones trying to find them – when the word gets out from a passing motorist (Camryn Manheim) that there may well be a couple of children driving a police car on the quiet highway, we never hear from anyone that they could be identified as runaways who are being sought by the authorities, never mind their guardians who don’t, from what we can tell, look after them very well. Thus the only people in the world Travis and Harrison have is one another.
What was pleasing about Cop Car was its single-minded determination to keep things as simple as possible, but that did not mean it was in effect simpleminded. The kids may be unworldly, but there was a fairy tale quality to their predicament that suggested Hansel and Gretel or some similar yarn that had the innocence of the young outwitting the corruption of the more mature, though with that in mind there was an element of the less forgiving fables, before they were toned down by the later retellers, that saw fit to punish everyone in the premise for their errors, never mind their active misdemeanours. Bacon’s Sheriff made for a formidable Big Bad Wolf or somesuch, so wily that you twig early on with the right circumstances he can make life very difficult for anyone who stands in his way, and the exposed landscape the thrills unfolded over only exacerbated the sense that the boys had made themselves very vulnerable. Maybe it was a shade too basic for true cult classic status, but it did find an appreciative audience in light of its more haunting aspects, that conclusion in particular. Music by Phil Mossman.