With “Cop Car”, director/co-writer Jon Watts returns us to a world we all remember, but never lets us forget the peril of the present. It’s proof positive that when you have strong storytelling skills and a talented cast, you don’t even need money (well, you need some, but you get my point). And a word to the wise? Do yourself a favor and skip the trailer.
Here we meet youngsters Travis and Harrison, on a walkabout across the American West. Given the expanse of land surrounding them, they’ve been at this for a while, with miles to go before they sleep.
It’s a perfect portrait of boyhood, complete with sticks (of course) and challenges of burgeoning manhood as they practice saying cuss words out loud (Harrison, the circumspect of the two, draws the line at the F-word).
We’re curious as to what the heck they’re up to – and about those who might be missing them about now, given that they’re too young to be at large for as long as it takes for them to get here and back again.
We lapse easily back into childhood’s world of exploration and wonder, as Travis (the intrepid) calls impatiently to Harrison to stop dawdling and press on, and Harrison, scurrying to catch up with his leader, calls out that he thought he’d found an arrowhead.
But even as we fall into step with these young Kings of Summer, our protective instinct as adults begins to activate as curiosity turns into calm alertness, keeping watch from the back of our mind like a parent watches from a playground bench.
It’s at this point Watts begins to unfold their quest, one glimpse at a time via elegant turns of dialogue that reveal “Cop Car”’s rich context. It’s a background that compounds when the pair reach a forested area, and spot from a ridge an apparently abandoned squad car. Awesome!
Crouched like Sam and Frodo watching the oliphants, the two ponder their next move from their keen yet still profoundly limited understanding (such as deciding not to lob a test rock because it’ll have their fingerprints on it, utterly oblivious to the fact that they’ve never been fingerprinted).
Investigation ensues, and when they find the keys, our adult protective instinct goes into high alert. But when we find out who left the car and why, it sounds the alarm.
From here Watts leads us through a thriller the elegance of which we haven’t seen since “Take Shelter”: a compact story that never overreaches its close confines and adds layer upon layer until we’re as trapped as our protagonists and deeply concerned for their welfare.
Where “Take Shelter” kept its secrets until the very last frame, “Cop Car” clues us into the forces converging upon Travis and Harrison – while keeping us always within their perspective. It’s truly a thing of beauty.
Though two of “Cop Car”’s remaining three characters spend the bulk of their time outside the presence of our young heroes, Watts and co-writer Christopher D. Ford keep looking through the eyes of the children, even when they’re miles away.
All actions are consistent with adult behavior, but Watts tunes his direction to vibe completely with how Travis and Harrison would experience the proceedings – for example taking a protracted amount of time to register a new situation (as they took with investigating the car), or the hyper-focus on unlocking a vehicle (as Harrison devoted to exploring the possible arrowhead). We see from a nine-year-old’s-eye view, key in from a nine-year-old’s processing, and yet never forget each moment’s implications for Travis and Harrison.
In this way, we experience “Cop Car” on concurrent levels, fully cognizant as adults of the peril that the boys are in, but sensing its unfolding from their vulnerability (which as you might imagine, only accentuates the suspense).
Newcomers James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford put themselves squarely on the map with this one (Freedson-Jackson begging comparison to the late River Phoenix), with Camryn Manheim and journeyman Shea Whigham bearing the weight of the two perspectives in perfect balance.
For his part, Kevin Bacon turns in some of his finest work to date. Amid the footloose Six Degrees revelry and his own self-effacing humor, it’s easy to forget his filmography is remarkably substantive, and if you don’t believe me, check out “Murder in the First” or “The Woodsman”. At one point he delivers a stare so chilling we’re glad the kids know it’s only a movie; if I were Watts, I’d tell them to close their eyes (and given the shot, he may have!).
Watts is proving himself a master of visual storytelling; “Cop Car” is taut, utilizes a sparse environment perfectly echoing its concise story, and packs a wallop. All this, and I viewed it with Comcast’s streaming in fine form – i.e., it took me 165 minutes to watch an 86-minute movie, but I still sensed the tension and had no intention of giving up.
I look forward to a proper viewing, and suggest you plan the same.
Story: Two youngsters on a wilderness walkabout happen upon the ultimate adventure – and then find themselves in the sights of the sheriff who left it there.
Themes: Awe, Man vs. Man, Perspective, Youth and Age, Zest
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Shea Whigham, Camryn Manheim, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford
Directed by: Jon Watts (co-writer)
Running time: 86 minutes
Houston release date: August 14, 2015
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings
Screened August 13, 2015 via studio screener.