Directed by: Jon Watts
Premise: Two boys (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) come across an abandoned police cruiser and take it on a joyride. The local sheriff (Kevin Bacon) pursues the boys in the hope of finding them before they discover the secret hidden in the trunk of the car.
What Works: As much as complex plotting, elaborate set pieces, and deep characterization can make for a good motion picture, there is also a great deal of pleasure to be had in movies that are lean and unsentimental and spin yarns with a perspicuous storytelling style. Cop Car is such a film. This tale of two boys joyriding in a corrupt sheriff’s police cruiser has just enough reality to be plausible and the story is told in such a focused way that most of the implausible details never interrupt the momentum of the picture. Cop Car moves forward at a breathless pace but it doesn’t use hyperkinetic editing to achieve that effect; the film proceeds deliberately and efficiently and the stakes of the story are enough to elevate the tension without editorial intrusion. Cop Car has a terrific cast. The boys are played by James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford. Movies tend to idealize children as totally innocent and childhood is imagined from an adult’s perspective as a magical time in which people are virtuous before they are corrupted by society and adulthood. Cop Car doesn’t buy into those fantasies. Freedson-Jackson and Wellford’s characters are realistic in that they are mischievous and find pleasure in illicit thrills but they aren’t criminal masterminds either and the filmmakers grasp the sick sense of humor of pre-teen boys. Each of the young protagonists is a distinct character. Freedson-Jackson is the alpha who leads the way whereas Jackson is a little more restrained and thoughtful. The interaction between these boys is authentic and recalls movies like Stand By Me and The Kings of Summer. Like those films, the boys of Cop Car set upon an adventure that puts them on a path to encountering some dark but understated truths about the world and themselves. The villain of Cop Car is a corrupt sheriff played by Kevin Bacon. He does this kind of edgy role well but Bacon isn’t just a straight villain. He’s a man in a desperate situation and even though everything in the movie tells us he’s bad—the sheriff is introduced disposing of a body—Bacon’s makes his character vulnerable in a way that complicates the conflict. Cop Car is beautifully filmed by cinematographers Matthew J. Lloyd and Larkin Seiple. The whole story takes place within about twelve hours and the empty western landscape is well shot with cars and characters frequently framed in a picturesque way, especially as the film nears twilight.
What Doesn’t: Cop Car is a briskly told story and it moves along so quickly that there isn’t much time devoted to nuanced character development. This is true of the sheriff but it’s also true of the boys who have stolen his car. Each of the young men has a distinct demeanor but they aren’t fleshed out very much as characters. In the opening of the film it’s established that these boys have run away from their homes but the moviemakers don’t fill in why they are running away and if they are just acting out a pre-teen rebellion or if they are fleeing something much worse. That information would lend their adventure a little more dramatic weight. The premise of Cop Car is predicated on the boys’ innocence and that is a source of some comic relief but at times the boys go beyond youthful naivety and hedge upon stupidity. The performances by young actors James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford are usually enough to overcome some of these implausibilities.
DVD extras: Featurette.
Bottom Line: Cop Car is a very satisfying thriller. The film is well made and terrifically acted and it tells a gripping story. This is one of those movies that didn’t get a wide release and largely passed under the radar of most moviegoers but it’s worth seeking out.
Episode: #594 (May 15, 2016)