This film works like a twisted cousin of Stand by Me (1986), it’s a dark coming of age thriller that slowly builds to a tense climax with varying results. Cop Car has its entertaining moments, the performances are captivating with sequences of engaging tension but overall this is a film that doesn’t quite realise its full potential. It’s faults don’t detract from its strengths but I did finish this film thinking it could have been a lot more.
The premise of Cop Car is clever and frames a mystery that director Jon Watts wants you to engage in. The mystery of the Cop Car is the catalyst for the film’s events, you’re not given every detail with what happened, you’re presented with bits and pieces and you’re asked to come to your own conclusion. What makes this film satisfying is the characters of the film and how they deal with the events of Cop Car. There are two sides to the story, the film first introduces you to the young boys, Travis and Harrison played by child actors James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford. The two have a good rapport immediately displaying a believable friendship as they try to one up each other with the best curse word they know. These two boys are the focus of the film, their youthful delinquency bringing them to find an abandoned cop car in the woods.
The opening of the movie works really well, Travis and Harrison’s discovery of the car leads to many moments of comedy as they try a figure out if the car is there looking for them. When they realise its empty they start daring each other to touch it, then they worry about their fingerprints and it builds from there. All of their actions and reactions to the car draw you in to the film, they act like you would if you saw a cop car in the middle of nowhere and because it’s a cop car there’s something very special about it. The two actors play off each other during this whole sequence very well, both of them trying to boast, goading the other to take it even further, you could imagine you and your childhood friend doing the same thing. So when Travis discovers the keys and they drive off the continue their adventure they never consider the consequences of that action or the reality of why there would be an abandoned cop car.
Watts then shows you the sinister origins of how the car arrived and introduces the film’s antagonist, The Sheriff played by Kevin Bacon. This sequence is quiet, works slowly just like the one with the children as it reveals through its imagery. There’s a dead body in the trunk and Bacon disposes of it with a disturbed routine. When Bacon returns to discover his car has disappeared, it’s a race against time to find who has the car before someone else does. Bacon’s performance is great, he isn’t a cunning mastermind, at times he seems to be in over his head, panicking, he doesn’t know how he’s going to resolve what’s happening. His desperation makes him dangerous and you fear for what will happen to Travis and Harrison if the Sheriff find them.
Cop Car is mixing a thriller with a coming of age story, it goes back and forth between the children and the sheriff. The children having fun with police tape and trying to figure out how to use an assault rifle is oddly funny but then the film goes to the sheriff trying to steal a car and deceiving his own officers. Then Watts brings the two story lines together when the children hear a noise in the trunk of the car. Watts definitely handles the fear in the second half of the film, executing a tense standoff sequence when the Sheriff and children finally meet.
The fault with the film was its potential, I really liked the idea for this movie but it didn’t keep its brilliance consistent. At times I was confused or disappointed by how the story was proceeding. A lot of Bacon’s scenes are him trying cover his tracks not actually hunting down the children and the cop car and I didn’t like how the film concludes the Sheriff’s story. Despite that this film has its moments, really great moments and sequences which highlight the strengths of its cast and crew and make a Cop Car an enjoyable film.