Cop Car begins optimistically, steadily declines, perks up near the middle, then ultimately flattens out. There is promise here, mostly due to the presence of the indispensable American treasure that is Kevin Bacon, but the tonal inconsistencies and the ultimate failure of the film to commit to its dark humor or violent undertones serve as its undoing.
Two boys, Travis and Harrison, have run away from home. At least that’s what they say; they’re about ten-years old, and who didn’t run away from home with their friend when they were ten? Travis and Harrison are trekking across anonymous sweeping plains (license plates indicate this is Colorado), going through their swear-word vocabulary – as ten-year old boys will do – when they happen upon a sheriff’s cruiser tucked away in some trees. They approach it as a smaller predator would do a beast they aren’t sure is dead, creeping up then running away, poking and prodding. Finally, they get the nerve to open the door and they horse around for a bit. Then, as if it were a sign, they find the keys sitting right there in the driver’s seat. They fire up the engine, and pull away with their knowledge of operating motor vehicles less than elementary.
The car belongs to Sheriff Kretzer, played by Kevin Bacon in an epic mustache that simultaneously looks cartoonish yet allows his character to carry a perpetual frown. Kretzer returns from the woods to discover his car is M.I.A., sending him into a full panic for a number of reasons which are explained in the second act. These early scenes of discovery, both on the side of the children and the panic of Kretzer, are handled masterfully, though the lack of auto knowledge from two ten-year olds seems extreme. I’m fairly certain I knew what all the letters on the gearshift meant when I was ten, but that’s a nitpick.
The boys play with crime-scene tape, guns, kevlar, all while Kretzer is scrambling to get back to his house to get his truck to track these kids down. It doesn’t seem they would have gotten too far away in such a short time, but maybe they did. Eventually, the boys uncover a secret abut the car, setting up the showdown and eventual climax. But things are too ambiguous with these characters, their alliances, and their motivations. Scenes have been stretched beyond their tensile strength, and the lack of any one person to dig your claws into makes the entire endeavor feel detached and diluted.
Bacon is delightful, regardless of the ultimate unevenness in Cop Car. His sinewy, snarling cop plays both desperate and degenerate with equal energy. If only the rest of the film were as even. The two boys, played by newcomers James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford, should ultimately be the audience’s connection in the film, but they could learn a thing or two from Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, the two young boys from Mud, who handled their precociousness with more aplomb and genuineness. And director Jon Watts, who directed the slasher film Clown, knows how to effectively frame scenes. The only problem is, in Cop Car, he has a great concept without a full story to tell.