So, let’s say that two guys, maybe they broke out of prison, came across an abandoned police cruiser, that just happens to be owned by a very corrupt sheriff, and the convicts decide to steal this cruiser and head off across the Colorado prairie. Intriguing, yes? What if the story was slightly different? Let’s say two young boys, running away from home, take this sheriff’s cruiser for a joyride, not exactly sure of how to drive the car or how to operate other things they might find in the back seat or the trunk. That’s even more intriguing, yes?
Cop Car, John Watts’ second major feature film, is a refreshing look at pure drama and dire situations through the eyes of children. There is already a heightened sense of reality with the fact that Cop Car is a movie, written with a plan and recorded with an objective lens, but the reality is heightened even further with the conflict of childhood innocence meeting in a head-on collision with shady business of a Midwestern underworld.
At times, there is also a documentary quality / pure cinema feel, where characters do not share heaping spoonfuls of dialogue (either through looks to one another, or by the fact that characters are sometimes by themselves in moments of contemplation). The cast is also not a big one, obvious in attempt to no doubt make the indie movie less costly, but also in an effort to probably make the film not so dragging in areas of character development or exposition into relationships. Indeed, one of the many high points for Cop Car is its simplicity. Sometimes people, including this author, like a big, sweeping, epic film with loads of characters and plotlines, and if done correctly, a three-hour plus film like that is intriguing and triumphant, and probably feels as if it moves faster than it actually does. However, some filmmakers make the mistake of over-complicating a film for usually selfish reasons, or they think that there is not enough “going on” if their movie is too short. That is where a movie can hazardously put an audience to sleep. Sometimes an audience needs just a taste, a hit of drama, and a “little” movie like Cop Car packs one hell of an unexpected wallop to satisfy just a need. In its relatively short runtime, the film is also as much of an elaborate chase as it is a coming of age story for Harrison, one of the two boys (Hays Wellford), whose character arc is so beautifully written. He goes from a zero tag-along to a hero by the narrative’s end. Harrison’s friend, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) is a grand instigator of continuing challenges, and no doubt the one who convinced Harrison to run away with him in the first place. Travis symbolizes an over-confidence that might be found in anyone, while Harrison is literally the soul of caution until his stunning transformation. Seasoned actor Kevin Bacon brings to the table one of his most complicated, as well as most interesting, characters to date in the form of the film’s main antagonist, Sheriff Kretzer. Kretzer is on the hunt for is stolen cruiser throughout most of the film’s duration, and resorts to some desperate means to achieve his goals. There is a sense, through Bacon’s fine performance, that Kretzer used to be a true man of the law before he was dragged into dirty games that surround his powerful position. That is probably the more perfect version of what an antagonist should be, not one pushed by “evil”, but rather by human flaws and untamed desperation. It makes Kretzer more believable, because he is, on some level, relatable to anybody. What could make an antagonist serve their purpose greater than being relatable? It gets under one’s skin in such a delightful way.
Perhaps the three best lessons learned from Cop Car is that 1.) Peer pressure can get one into so much trouble, 2.) The grass is not always greener on the other side, and 3.) One should not be afraid to try new things. Consequently, these are mistakes that children are more prone to make, which gives the need for kids to be the protagonists. It is also ironic that the first two lessons to be learned are what inhibit the learning of the third. If one always shoots down peer pressure (if it is in fact the positive sort), or if they never dare to look for the greener grass, then they are doomed to not grow into a better version of themselves. It is because of Harrison and Travis’ poor choices (in the eyes of an adult) that Harrison grows into something that is closer to manhood. By the conclusion (with something like the vehicular chase in Spielberg’s Duel), Harrison wishes to make things right, to save himself and his friend, and to break out of his comfort zone in order to do all of that. He doesn’t even have to say this in dialogue; the change is in his eyes. That is superb acting.
With razor-sharp writing, purposeful directing, and simplicity in casting, Cop Car is nearly perfect.