Cop Car (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Only a handful of American movies put children in danger and are willing to deliver what is absolutely necessary to fit their specific stories. Most tend to use the former as a hook but by the end everyone goes home safe and sound. “Cop Car,” written by Jon Watts and Christopher D. Ford, goes all the way. By the end of this film, which consists of only five characters, only one will survive—and even that last person’s fate is not certain.
Two preteen runaways, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), find a seemingly abandoned police patrol car in a secluded area that sits in the middle of a field. Fearing they will get in trouble if they get too close, they throw a rock at it. Nothing happens. They dare each other to touch it. Nothing happens still.
They open the door. Excitement booms in their bellies. They go inside and pretend to drive. Still all fun and games. And then they find the keys. One of the boys suggests they drive it. Meanwhile, Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) prepares to hide a corpse and intends to use the very same car the boys found. The car is no longer there.
It works as a highly effective thriller because Jon Watts directs the piece with patience. Take note of the scene where the sheriff decides to steal a car himself. It composes of two perfectly framed shots. One involves a section of a shoelace, tied in such a way as to create a hoop, being attempted to lift the car lock. The other shot captures the man’s various expressions as frustration builds up to a rage. As the scene unfolds, we learn a few things about Kretzer even though no conversation occurs. It is a picture that demands the audience to be observant.
We also observe the two boys’ relationship. One has a more dominant personality, but the other has a say, too. We buy their friendship immediately because what they have is so common, such a dynamic can be found at a nearby park or right outside our doors. The dialogue does not at all feel or sound like a script. Limited words are used; a lot of the believable elements rely on body language, how they look at one another, the tone in their voices when they do decide to speak.
Because the realistic elements fall into place seemingly without effort, the turn of events feel exactly right. It may lack big, drawn-out action pieces, but the bursts of violence are swift and memorable. We are in constant state of evaluation when it comes to the boys’ chance of survival. The screenplay is tightly written and so when one side of the equation changes just a little bit, the other side may be impacted greatly. In that way, there is a consistent and subtle excitement.
These are children who think that driving a real car must be like playing “Mario Kart.” Their bold natures—carelessness, rather—challenges us to look away. By the end of their story, they learn several unforgettable lessons. Perhaps most important is the lesson about consequences. In a video game, one may crash a vehicle or fail on accomplishing a mission but there is always a second chance. The world outside video games, however, is less forgiving.