In the opening scene of Cop Car, writer/director Jon Watts establishes the two different worldviews that make his film a compelling thriller. There’s the child world and the adult world. The child world is one of fantasy and games without consequences. Friends Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) have run away from home, and they think they can survive on their own with just a Slim Jim and their ability to curse without repercussions. The adult world, by contrast, is one of violence, manipulation, and murder. But Travis and Harrison don’t know that yet. They will soon.
Cop Car‘s demarcation between the child world and adult world is so pronounced that it’s almost like a fairy tale. Rather than crossing the village border for the dark woods, our nine-year-old runaways crawl past a barbed wire fence. Eventually they find an abandoned cop car and take it for a joy ride. Had Travis and Harrison not stumbled onto the cop car, they probably would have given up running away and been back with their respective parents by sundown. Instead, they wind up deep into the ugly adult world where it’s unlikely that they’ll make it through the night.
Director: Jon Watts
Release Date: August 7, 2015
Cop Car has a lot in common with Coen Brothers thrillers like Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men. There’s also a strong vibe of Jeremy Saulnier’s lo-fi 2014 revenge movie Blue Ruin. Regular people wind up way over their heads in an uncontrollable situation, and they’re forced to deal with it to survive. There’s this black comedy that comes from confrontations with one’s own ineptitude (or inflated sense of ability) during life or death situations. With the two child leads, there’s this childlike sense of “No way!” when they steal the cop car and drive off, a kind of young incredulity about the unchecked freedom of adulthood. They speed, they drive on the wrong side of the road, they play with guns, they think they’re invincible.
Then in comes Kevin Bacon, who plays Sheriff Kretzer, the cop whose car was stolen. Kretzer’s shady backstory gets revealed slowly but not fully as the film unfolds. Watts is smart not to provide all the details and instead just gives enough pieces for the audience to reconstruct his crimes. It makes the world of Cop Car feel more lived-in. Like the child runaway plot and fairy tales, we’re familiar with this kind of dirty-cop story too.
The kids think they’re in control but wind up losing it. Kretzer’s got the opposite arc of control, and spends early parts of Cop Car helplessly trying to cover his own ass with the people at police dispatch. There’s something comically Benny Hill-ish about him running panicked through a open field when he can’t find the car; you can almost hear an internal monologue of “oh crap, oh crap, oh crap” with each stride. On top of that, something about the mustache and his posture makes Kretzer look like a side character from Super Troopers. Yet Krezter is a good improviser, and he knows how to use the system to his advantage.
Bacon imbues Kretzer with a wolf-like menace. His desperation makes him seem like some raging animal in a frenzy, but he becomes more refined as the situation becomes clearer and he sees an opportunity to re-take control. When he’s finally able to talk to the boys over the police radio, there’s this stern, authoritative quality to Bacon’s voice that conveys a clenching fist and gnashed teeth and a loaded gun. The Krezter character and Bacon’s performance are rooted in the black comedy of sudden ineptitude and black-hearted desperation.
In addition to the child world being subsumed by the adult world, there’s also an interesting inversion of dominance going on between Travis and Harrison. Travis seems more like the leader of the two boys. The smaller of the two, he’s recklessly brave, more vocal, willing to drop and f-bomb and play mischief maker during their dalliance with running away. Yet as the situation becomes more dangerous and the boys find themselves deep in danger, Travis’ young bravery recedes and Harrison needs to find a way to assume the lead.
Watts proves a capable director of actors as well as action, controlling his shots and dialing back extraneous sounds to get the maximum dread and tension from a moment. I found it surprising that he was tapped to direct the Spider-Man reboot for Marvel Studios, though. Nothing about Cop Car screams, “This guy is a perfect fit for Spider-Man.” (With great Cop Car moments comes great responsibility?)
It seems like part of a pattern of promising indie directors being handed the reins to major studio tentpoles. Think Marc Webb on The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, Colin Trevorrow doing Jurassic World, and Josh Trank on Fantastic Four. It’s a bit of a surprising trend, one that gives fledgling directors big breaks but may also break their spirits given the creative compromises required to work on a major studio film. As noted in our Ant-Man review, the MCU films are producer/studio-driven rather than director-driven. The cynical part of me thinks that studios believe these indie directors will be more compliant, that they’re starving for the breakout hit and will do whatever they’re told. That’s not always the case. Selma director Ava DuVernay was offered Marvel’s Black Panther but passed due to creative differences.
The worst thing that could happen to Watts on Spider-Man is reducing him to a journeyman director, draining him of his talent simply to deliver a competent film on time. I want to go back to Watts’ debut, a 2014 horror film called Clown, to see what else his abilities suggest he’s capable of. Cop Car makes me want more original work in Watts’ future. One hopes his big-studio adventure over the barbed wire fence goes well.