Skip to main content
film review

Kevin Bacon as a wired and wiry small town sheriff who goes looking for his missing car after a pair of children find it in a field and take it for a joyride.

In the last few minutes of the tight little indie thriller Cop Car, a frightened prepubescent boy drives a stolen police cruiser down a darkening road and asks his partner-in-crime, "Where's the lights?" From the back seat, the other replies that they are on "the shifter thing" beside the steering wheel. And so the boys drive on – with the windshield wipers going.

Cop Car remains true to its own subtle, jet-black humour right to the bitter end. Audiences ensnared by its catchy premise – two runaway boys steal an apparently empty cruiser, thus interrupting the local sheriff in the midst of murder – may then expect bigger fireworks and more story, but director Jon Watts is smart enough never to deviate from a narrow vision that he executes superbly.

The film begins with the same understated humour with which it ends: The two boys wander across the prairie beyond a Colorado subdivision with the ringleader (James Freedson-Jackson) insisting that his sidekick (Hays Wellford) repeat dirty words until the second boy balks and refuses to say the f-word. They are not exactly innocents, but there are limits to their understanding of evil as they wander unwittingly into the wild West.

Watts, who co-wrote the film with Christopher D. Ford, toys with those limits throughout, juxtaposing the boys' naive view of crime with the real violence they expose when they start playing with the car. As they first drive off on their joy ride, Watts flashes back to explain why Kevin Bacon's anxiously swaggering sheriff has left his cruiser at the edge of the woods – he is burying a body – before returning to scenes that alternate between the boys' limited vision of the situation and the sheriff's panicked one.

That initial flashback, the play between differing perspectives and the black humour have earned the film inevitable and disparaging comparisons to Quentin Tarantino's narratively twisted Pulp Fiction, but Cop Car is its own, quieter thing. As the sheriff cleverly pursues his car, stealing other vehicles and scheming to clear a radio channel on which he can communicate with the boys, Watts resolutely avoids back-story or big picture. We never know exactly why the sheriff has murdered (although he does flush an awful lot of cocaine down the toilet in one scene). Instead, Watts keeps the story firmly focused in the present as the odd and ill-matched competition between the sheriff and the boys unfolds.

The film is anchored by Bacon's wired and wiry sheriff, taut with anxiety when alone but instantly erecting the façade of the upright man of justice – avuncular with the law-abiding; self-righteous with the wayward – the moment another person is in earshot. Bacon's creation is like some twisted, human version of Wile E. Coyote, running wildly across the prairie at a desperate jog when he discovers the car is missing or cleverly inveigling a civilian into shielding him from a gunman in the movie's dark dénouement.

The two boys' spoken performances, largely monosyllabic, are often flat, but this is not a movie about dialogue: It is their physical presences – their aimless adventuring; their wide-eyed wonder at the technology of policing; their gut-wrenching fear in the face of actual death – that are wholly convincing. And for all of Bacon's bravura, viewers will naturally identify most with the children: Watts walks us innocents out into the landscape where Hollywood has made its greatest myths and then removes the blindfold.