ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

Two young boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) have run away from home and are enjoying their newfound freedom. At first, it’s the typical juvenile antics for them – spurting out as many consequence-free cuss words as they can think of or beating up a snake hole – until they come across an abandoned cop car in the woods. Their curiosity spikes to infinity and they decide to go for a harmless joy ride. No big deal if anyone catches them; they’ll just tell ’em they’re cops.

After all, this is their cop car now.

… Well… Sheriff Kretzer might have a little something to say about that, as the boys’ little harmless trip unleashes the county cop’s fury and unloads a world of consequences for the them.

If any one of the picturesque Terrence Malick films had a baby with a Cormac McCarthy novel, it would probably look something like Cop Car.

Debuting at Sundance earlier this year in January, Cop Car comes from co-writer/director Jon Watts, following his 2014 debut horror film Clown and directing a number of episodes of the Onion News Network prior to that. This sophomore effort of his is a strong throwback thriller – one aided by Larkin Seiple and Matthew J. Lloyd’s beautifully framed landscape cinematography and Phil Mossman’s tense score – that may start out like Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me with the two mischievous kids on their adventure, but soon ventures into bleak No Country for Old Men territory as soon as the kids’ trouble-making ways land them in over their head.

The shift between those two aforementioned styles of film might sound like tonal whiplash (I mean, Kiefer Sutherland’s great in Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age classic, but Ace Merrill is no Anton Chigurh), but though the shifts are noticeable, they’re not distractingly so. One particularly awkward and disturbingly funny moment involving the kids toying with the cop’s assault weapons (they wonder if the gun not firing means it’s out bullets, though it’s actually ’cause the safety is thankfully on) could’ve backfired hard if it wasn’t for the fact that the film is fully aware to how dangerously flippant the two boys are with the weapons. Overall, Watts manages to still keep a tight enough hold on the film’s tone as it grows darker with each passing scene.

This is an example of film that excels in “keep it simple, stupid” sparseness. The story, which runs at a tightly-paced 86 minutes, doesn’t get bogged down in backstory details. We don’t know why the kids are running away, or the reason behind Sheriff Kretzer’s dirty little secrets. This is simply a short but thoroughly gripping ride that brings the corrupt sheriff, two kids and two adult brothers caught up in some bad deals all together in the span of just one day, each one hoping they survive the deep hole they have dug themselves into.

This film also earns bonus points for what could be the most morbid monologue I’ll hear in a film this year. I usually tend to criticize the cliche “villain speech”, but this one’s so heinously detailed, the device gets a pass here. I’ll let you listen for yourself.

Although Kevin Bacon’s the headliner, a good share of the film rests on the shoulders of its kid actors James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford who show absolutely no signs of child actor phoniness and deliver strong performances that depict a friendship which is 100% genuine. Camryn Manheim has a few nice scenes as a local who runs into the boys while they’re out causing trouble. Shea Whigham is great in a role that the less you know about going in, the better.

But of course, it’s Kevin Bacon, rocking a gaunt frame and wicked porn stache, who steals the show. Bacon’s one of those actors that has an ability to slip comfortably into any role whether on TV or in film, playing the charming love interest in a rom-com or the creepy antagonist he plays here. Both Watts and Bacon rightfully put no effort in making Sheriff Kretzer some unstoppable genius. He’s just clever enough to coverup whatever tracks he needs to in order to avoid getting caught, but also clueless enough at times to show you how human he still is. Make no mistake, though, Kretzer is dangerous, and Bacon makes him all the more despicable by providing his menace with a layer of smarmy, manipulative charm used to deceive everyone from his dispatcher to the two boys.

Gorgeously shot and effectively small-scale, Cop Car boasts a lean, mean narrative and strong cast led by a chilling Kevin Bacon, both of which are more than enough to keep the film steady on its short but darkly sweet track despite a few uneven spots. It’s unfortunate that like similarly toned films before it such as last year’s Blue Ruin and David Gordon Green’s Undertow, this may end up flying under the radar with moviegoers, but Jon Watts’s taut thriller nevertheless seems destined to become a cult classic, one that’s good enough to make the ghost of Sam Peckinpah weep tears of joy.

I give Cop Car an A- (★★★½).

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