Fear of police is nothing new but it’s clear that astynomiaphobia has reached critical mass in 2015, as civilian deaths from police activity have seemingly increased even as the cop death rate is at one of its lowest points in recorded history. That inherent distrust of authority figures has a rich history in fiction, particularly film, where everything from Bad Lieutenant to Training Day has mined police paranoia but it’s safe to say that Jon Watts’ Cop Car is a novel twist on the trope, sidestepping topicality by merging police horror with road horror, adding a sprinkling of Stand By Me coming-of-age nostalgia for extra flavor. The result is a genre film that hints at a lot of interesting ideas but ultimately buckles under the pressure of its own distractions, stalling out right as it ramps up.
That’s honestly par for the course for Watts, as his feature debut Clown also struggled to stick to an idea long enough for it to mature. Both films get ample mileage out of the idea of finding something interesting, only to have it turn into an object of terror. With Clown it was, uh, a demonic clown suit, whereas Cop Car is far more grounded, following two young boys as they run away from home, discover a cop car in the woods and take it out on a joyride. The car belongs to Sheriff Mitch, played by an especially intense and creepy Kevin Bacon. One of Watts more innovative scripting decisions is his choice to never entirely define Mitch’s “badness,” instead treating him as a weirdo coke fiend who is clearly up to no good but paradoxically sympathetic. We might meet him as he’s disposing of a body in a concrete pit he may or may not have created ahead of time, but it’s hard not to feel bad for the awkward situation he’s in– it’s not like the Sheriff can call dispatch and pull a “dude, where’s my car?” Especially not if there are some questionable goods in the back seat and the trunk.
The film is at its best when it’s focused on Bacon because the veteran actor embraces the minimal narrative set-up with vigor, turning in a performance that is far too weird to count as scenery chewing. Bacon moves like a lizard in human skin, wiry and shiftless; even his sparse dialogue has a deliberate unnatural quality to it, building on the hints Watts drops throughout about the Sheriff’s con artist background. The film never completely explains what the Sheriff’s ploy is but it’s clear that he has manipulated his way into his position and most of the fear of him comes from his desperation as he attempts to reclaim his car without his peers finding out he lost it or discovering his falsehood.
Watts also utilizes the wide open expanses of his home of Colorado to great effect, making the kids’ lengthy joyride all the more believable through long shots of empty roads, abandoned rural zones and a general lack of population. When Camryn Manheim shows up a role that mirrors her performance in Happiness, it’s not hard to see why her story about two kids riding around in a sheriff’s car mostly falls on deaf ear and her eventual fate more or less happens because of her inherent trust of others and willingness to be a good samaritan. The film doesn’t have a twist, per se, but its climax builds on all this and serves as commentary on the tragically naive question one of the boys asks: “are you a good guy or a bad guy?”
The limitations of that view of the world carry over to the disappointing finale of the film, and while Watts’ attempts to shake the audience’s expectation of a “pay off” or a triumph are laudable in theory, the movie’s true ending doesn’t quite work hard enough to achieve any kind of actual shock. Watts may leave audiences wanting more from his bare bones story, but not badly enough to shake the feeling that they’ve been cheated, like a meal comprised solely of several platters of bite sized samples. That doesn’t bode well for his current assignment on the upcoming Spider-Man reboot but at the very least, Cop Car will encourage more genre directors to cast Bacon in villainous roles. As it stands, Cop Car could have been a truly amazing short film, but as a feature length movie it leaves too much to be desired to be anything other than a curiosity.
Cop Car will be available this Tuesday, September 29th, on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.