'Cop Car' Is A Wild Blend Of Amblin Innocence And Coen Brothers Violence [Sundance 2015]

Cop Car has the brutal elegance of old-school crime fiction. Two young kids find a seemingly abandoned sheriff's cruiser in a stand of trees. One thing leads to another, and soon they're off on a joyride through the countryside. But the sheriff wants his car back, and there's another wild card factor, too, which draws a noose around all their necks.

Few deeds go unpunished in this daylight noir. Yet even through the increasingly grim action an innocence is maintained that sets Cop Car apart from recent companion films such as Cold in July, The Guest, and Blue Ruin. Getting reductive for a moment, Cop Car is like an Amblin film filtered through the twisted vision of the Coen Brothers. It's a midnight movie blast.

Travis and Harrison (newcomers James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) are wandering fields on the edge of their Colorado town. They needle and dare one another as they playact whatever concept slips into their heads from moment to moment. The slender Travis has a burgeoning aggressive streak; Harrison, mop-headed in lumpy, stained clothes, is secretive and reluctant.

Their imaginary games take a turn when they find the car; the sheriff's cruiser beckons as a mysterious artifact. First they throw rocks, then rush to touch it. Soon they're rolling across fields and dirt roads, ecstatic at their good luck, barely able to see over the dash as they work the pedals. Freedson-Jackson and Wellford have great presence and an instantly familiar chemistry. Their genuine surprise, caution and delight at each new discovery carries us along on their adventure.

Enter the sheriff, who is on strange errands of his own. Kevin Bacon, sporting a gunslinger mustache and viciously pointed crew cut, swaggers into frame as the confident lawman. But it doesn't take much to transform his bluster into desperation, and the loss of his car represents a serious problem. Watching Bacon play the transformation — primarily without dialogue, as he's the only performer in many of his scenes — is a delight.

The middle third of Cop Car might benefit from tightening up. After opening with scenes of the kids wandering through the back pastures that spread out from the outskirts of their town, the film rarely steps up the pace to more than a fast trot. At times that works to good effect, as director Jon Watts lets the audience churn, clearly indicating that things for the characters are going to get a lot worse before they get better. But some sequences linger without building much. A scene where Bacon attempts to unlock a car, for example, must be meant to be far more suspenseful than it actually plays out.

Once all the pieces are in place, however, Cop Car becomes relentless, building to a final sequence that is based on such elemental real-world horror I wanted to dive under the seat to escape it. Watts isn't a sadist; very bad things do happen to these characters, but not in a way designed to punish the audience. He's building a hard-boiled take on the loss of innocence, and the film's grim business is surprisingly effective.

/Film score: 8 out of 10