Two runaway kids find an apparently abandoned cop car in the middle of nowhere – with no one else around. What to do. What to do. How about take it for a joyride?
Problem: the car belongs to a corrupt, murderous sheriff and there’s an unexpected surprise in the trunk.
Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hayes Wellford) are walking across a field, trying out cusswords and talking about sharing a snack in small portions – clearly, they’ve run away from. As they come to a copse of trees, the spot a county sheriff’s car, apparently abandoned.
After making sure there’s no one else around, they try the doors. The one on the driver’s side is open. The boys are preteens, but finding the car and seeing no one around, they decide to take it and drive off.
We cut to a short time prior to the boys’ discovery. The car pulls into the glade and the sheriff (Kevin Bacon) gets out. He takes his shirt and hat off, then opens the truck, pulls out a body bag and wrangles a body into it. He closes the trunk and hauls the body off to a hole (maybe a well) that’s been covered over with a huge square of metal.
After he disposes of the body, he returns to find his car gone. Thinking quickly, he pulls out his cell phone calls dispatch (Kyra Sedgwick) and informs her that his radio is getting all kinds of interference for some strange reason. Then he starts running.
Meanwhile, the boys are having the time of their young lives following a rough track to the highway and then speeding away – almost running a woman (Camryn Manheim) off the road.
Things begin to go sour for the boys when they open the trunk. Enter the badly battered Man (Shea Whigham).
Cop Car was written by Christopher D. Ford and director John Watts. It’s a smart, sneaky b-movie that draws in by playing up the boys’ escapades with the car and contrasting that with the sheer nastiness of Bacon’s Sheriff Kretzer.
Slowly, Cop Car edges into thriller territory, beginning with the boys playing with guns they find in the car. When they don’t work Travis and Harrison figure they must be faulty – an erroneous supposition, it turns out.
Though the pacing remains fairly deliberate throughout, the film’s tone shifts from joyous fun to menace through lighting, score and the audience knowing what’s happening away from the boys.
Bacon does a great job of conveying darkness without overdoing it – outside of one brief outburst when Kretzer discovers his car is missing. He makes us believe that Kretzer is smart and cautious, but just purely unlucky.
Whigham doesn’t have a lot of call to display range, but he’s clever and the boys simply don’t have the experience to deal with him.
Manheim’s Bev is purely a plot device, but she gives her a layer of righteous indignation as she reports being nearly run off the road by a cop car.
But it’s the boys – Freedson-Jackson and Wellford – who make Cop Car work. They are so perfectly, naturally kids – and heir to the foibles of the young and open-minded – that we are immediately charmed by them and finding ourselves worrying about them as things go south.
Wellford, especially, is more open and vulnerable and, as a result, Harrison gets some of the most trying moments and is forced to make some wrenching decisions.
Director John Watts makes this low-budget thriller one the summer’s best surprises.
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