Film Reviews

MISE EN SEAN – <i>Cop Car</i> (2015)

MISE EN SEAN – Cop Car (2015)

Sean Hanson

August 15th, 2015


Two ten-year-old boys amble through the tall grass of a Colorado plain, exchanging profanities for the sake of exchanging profanities. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) challenges Harrison (Hays Wellford) to say the F-word, but he refuses to say the worst of the curses. In the first ten minutes of Cop Car, Travis will challenge Harrison to do a great deal more, up to and including stealing a police cruiser from Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), who has abandoned his cruiser to bury a body in the woods.

What follows is a tense, economical road thriller in the grand tradition of Breakdown and Joy Ride, but one that plays uncomfortably on our notions of children’s vulnerability. Travis and Harrison have no idea the kind of danger they’re in — they’re afraid they might be arrested for running away from home while we’re afraid they might be two more bodies for Kretzer to bury — and their “aww shucks, boys will be boys” brand of Twainian misadventure escalates rather quickly into anarchy with potentially fatal consequences, especially once they find a cache of weapons in Kretzer’s backseat.

Smartly, co-writers John Watts, who also directed, and Christopher D. Ford complement the boys’ narrative with one that’s equally suspenseful, if for different reasons. Wired up with nervous desperation and a mustache to match, Bacon makes for a convincing villain. Separated from his cruiser and all of the things that make him the sheriff, his options are few and waning, and we end up rooting for him — not because we want him to succeed, mind you, but because we know he’s capable of murder and we’d like to see fewer people suffer a corrupt cop’s wrath. How these parallel stories collide is one of the film’s biggest payoffs, as Ford and Watts craft a third act that’s both unexpected and satisfying, tying two unlikely secondary characters into the plot because they’ve run afoul of either Kretzer or the children.

While Bacon never cracks a smile and composer Phil Mossman ratchets up the tension with a discordant country-fried score, a film that’s at least half about child endangerment wouldn’t be much fun (especially not for parents) if Cop Car weren’t at least part black comedy, but Watts and Ford take a sort of subversive glee in throwing their child protagonists into such dangerous situations, forcing us to watch as, say, a real ten-year-old drives a real car down a two-lane rural highway. In most movies, even with adult actors driving, trucks tow the cars — it’s why we frequently see this action in closeup — but here, unless they used CGI to accomplish the feat, medium-long shots remind us that Freedson-Jackson is actually in the driver’s seat. I don’t doubt the filmmakers used something like remote controls and/or kill switches, but it’s the kind of convincing lo-fi movie magic that sustains an impressive illusion.

Cop Car may be little more than a brisk exercise in tension and release, getting a good chunk of mileage (no pun intended) on that trick alone, but it’s a hell of a trick. Sure, it could’ve been longer, it might’ve gone deeper into Bacon’s half of the plot, and it should’ve done a little bit more with the premise — there’s a brief “is this all there is?” moment towards the end of the movie — but it’s the kind of cheap, gimmicky road thriller that helped define the midnight movie in the first place.

Cop Car continues its run at the Bijou Metro. Click here for showtimes.

Sean Hanson is a Eugene film critic whose work has been published by Something Awful and Front Row Central. Mise en Sean, despite being a terrible pun, is an irregular column in which he provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

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