At least for its first hour or so, Jon Watts’s hair-raising coming-of-age/chase movie Cop Car feels like a true original. Its setup is simple but promising: Two 10-year-old runaways (Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson), drifting aimlessly on the prairie while trading curse words, come across a sheriff’s car in a small patch of woods, with the keys still in it. At first they’re wary of approaching it, but little by little, it becomes a part of the game they’re playing. And then, even though they can barely reach the accelerator, they get in and drive off. They don’t care what happens next. They’re still living in a world that’s half-possible, half-fantastic. (“What if someone sees us?” “We’ll just tell them we’re cops!”) Then the film cuts back to show us how the car got to that spot in the first place: A shady local Sheriff (Kevin Bacon) had parked it briefly while he tried to dispose of two bodies — and one of the bodies is still in the trunk.
That feels like it could be the beginnings of a generic, Tarantino-esque neo-noir. It’s not so much the story, though, as it is the unusual mix of tones that makes the film work for as long as it does. Our two young heroes are foolish, free-spirited, and very much still children: They fantasize about yelling “Cops drink diarrhea milk shakes and get double diarrhea!” into the CB in the car; they fool around with a gun, a rifle, and a bulletproof vest, even though they know nothing about how to use this equipment. (At one point, convinced the rifle is jammed, one of them looks straight into the muzzle.) Watching their cavalier attitude on the screen, you might find yourself curled into a fetal position in your seat, waiting for whatever will surely go wrong to finally go wrong.
But the film never feels manipulative, and that’s a testament both to the economical script (written by Watts and Christopher D. Ford) and to the direction. Watts is fond of long vistas, wide shots that take in the landscape around these characters, which creates a sense of both grandeur and insignificance even as it lends some humor. There’s something mythic about the story unfolding before us, but the film avoids self-importance.
The performances help, too. As the drawling, bewildered, corrupt sheriff, Kevin Bacon has a tough job to pull off: He has to play both Terminator and clown, as his relentless pursuit of whoever took his car is laced with bits of intricate physical comedy. A scene where he has to try and break into someone else’s car with a shoelace is as suspenseful as anything in the latest Mission: Impossible movie, with the actor’s periodic flails of frustration punctuating each failed attempt. The kids are good, too: They sell both the childish behavior in the film’s first half, as well as their later, more grown-up moments, as they come in for the inevitable life lessons.
It would be hard to get into why Cop Car doesn’t exactly stick its landing without giving away some key plot twists. So let’s just say that the balls Ford and Watts toss so deftly into the air — both narratively and tonally — don’t all come back down with the same elegance with which they went up. The supposed climactic set piece, while shot and cut effectively, feels a bit too like an easy, typical denouement; it doesn’t really do justice to the off-kilter atmosphere of the rest of the film. Still, Cop Car does enough things so well for so long that to quibble with its finale feels churlish. This is a film very much worth seeing.