Friday, September 25, 2015

Film Review: Cop Car (2015)

When Cop Car debuted at the Sundance film festival back in January, it was warmly received and seen as a minor breakthrough for writer-director Jon Watts. It wasn't the sort of film that would set the world alight, but it was a smart, low-budget genre movie that was expertly handled and augured great things. Yet before it even went into general release, the film already felt like a footnote of Watts' career, since he was tapped to direct the next Spider-Man reboot not long after Cop Car played in Park City. While that doesn't have much of a bearing on the film itself, it does alter the general perception of it. What once was a sharp and neatly put together genre exercise starts to look a little too much like a calling card, or Watts' gateway to franchise filmmaking.

If Cop Car is only ever remembered as the film that helped launch Watts into the big leagues, it remains a pretty good springboard. The set-up is as simple as its title. While out walking one day, two young boys named Travis and Harrison (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford, respectively) stumble across a seemingly abandoned police cruiser. After daring each other to touch the car, they discover that not only is open, but the keys are still in it. Overcome by their good fortune, they decide to take the car for a joyride, and start hurtling around the empty back roads of the Midwest.

Unsurprisingly, because the film wouldn't be much more than a short film otherwise, the car was not abandoned, its owner was just indisposed. Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) was off burying a dead body, so the theft of his vehicle is more than just an embarrassment: it could unveil whatever shady dealings he has been involved in. From that point onwards, the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game (albeit one in which the cat is often tens of miles away from the mouse) in which Kretzer has to try to get a new car, somehow find his old one or contact the boys, but without letting anyone else realise what is going on.

Cop Car unfolds in a very clean and straightforward fashion. After establishing the amiable, foul-mouthed relationship between Travis and Harrison and showing how they are just bored and precocious enough to think that stealing a car, let alone a cop car, is a totally cool idea that couldn't possibly have any negative repercussions, the film then cuts between them tearing around and Kretzer's desperate attempts to get out of the mess he finds himself in. As such, the film has two distinct tones that gradually converge over time.

The Travis-Harrison scenes feel like something out of Stand By Me, all jokey bonhomie and daring each other to do stupid things like talk to the operator (Kyra Sedgwick) at the other end of the police scanner, or trying to use the guns in the car to shoot each other while wearing bullet-proof vests. Even when they don't do dumb things, it's because they decided not to using odd kid logic. The writing and the performances from the young actors make it feel like a natural and real friendship, albeit one which plays out in a situation that the two friends do not fully understand, making their half of the film surprisingly jovial.

The Kretzer scenes are understandably more frantic, and serve to illustrate what an underrated actor Kevin Bacon is. He has to maintain a difficult balance because Kretzer is a desperate man who is capable of horrible violence. He has to be convincing as someone who might kill an innocent person just because they might accidentally stumble upon what he is up to. At the same time, he's a somewhat farcical figure, one whose attempts to steal cars and break into houses are oddly reminiscent of the scene in An American Werewolf in London where David Naughton has to run through London naked. The goofier elements of the character seep out of the film as Kretzer puts together a plan, but Bacon maintains a level of intensity which makes his mad scrabble to control the situation both funny and tense.

Tone is key to the success of the film overall. Watts regulates the shifts well, allowing the boys' enthusiasm and sense of adventure to get gradually squeezed out by the growing danger that Kretzer represents, until the gravity of the situation finally dawns on them. On one or two occasions the film shifts gears rather abruptly, such as the introduction of a fourth character into the cat-and-mouse game, but for the most part the progression feels natural. The film may start out with the pastoral good humour of Mark Twain and end with the nihilism of Cormac McCarthy, but Watts traces the path between those extremes deftly, and does allow for moments of humour (albeit of a much darker variety) to appear even when the story starts to look hopeless.

Even though it's consistently entertaining, Cop Car never quite manages to be better than good, despite everything it has in its favour. It's still a smart, funny and slick work of small-scale filmmaking, one which manages to eke as much drama and humour as it can out of a handful of dynamics. But those dynamics are limited by the nature of the story, and Watts doesn't do quite enough to turn those limitations into a strength the way that something similar like Blue Ruin did. There isn't a huge amount of personality in the film, but there is a surplus of competency and intelligence. Hopefully those things won't be beaten out of Jon Watts when he has to retell the Peter Parker story once more.

Grade: B