Kevin Bacon Steers Taut, Homespun "Cop Car"

“Cop Car” is the Kevin Bacon movie you didn’t know you wanted, an impossibly sparse indie thriller with a cast of five and not much more going on that its title suggests – which is precisely why it works.

Two grade-schoolers – Harrison (Hays Wellford) and Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) – run away from home, come across an abandoned sheriff’s vehicle, and take it for a joy ride. When the car’s driver – the mustached Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon) – comes back around, he blows his stack. He’s left something sensitive in the car, a secret that could bring some shady dealings to light.

This is a fine set-up, but the way writer-director Jon Watts plays with the timeline in the first act puts it over the top. We learn everything we need to know about these characters from limited dialogue and some spectacular physical acting from Bacon, setting up a deadly simple white knuckler that’s darkly funny and surprisingly dramatic.

The kid logic that guides Harrison and Travis is adorable and terrifying and utterly believable. As they march through the Colorado hillside toward the cruiser that will change their lives, their exploratory use of curse words rings true, the horizon ahead of them as intimidating as it is exhilarating. They’re as well drawn as any child characters in 2015, aided by two perfectly natural performances in a movie wisely built around them rather than vice versa. An inferior film would lean on the boys to act instead of react. Instead, they’re allowed to be passers-by, which is exactly the right choice.

It’s left to Bacon’s character to drive the story. He’s an obviously corrupt cop with a woodshed of dark secrets – but the actual secrets are largely inconsequential. It’s the vulnerability caused by the theft of his car that makes Kretzer such a wonderful character. His desperation is comical, his panicky mannerisms exquisitely measured. Scrawny like an underfed coyote, he’s a self-professed man of power who’s been stripped of it, subject to the whims of two clueless kids.

Shea Whigham and Camrym Manheim support as two souls caught up the above-mentioned tumult, with Whigham in particular making something from nothing. It’s not a particularly well-developed role, but one he gnaws on excitedly, reconfiguring the two boys’ world from a game of cops and robbers gone too far to something much more nightmarish.

The third act is something of a disappointment with Watts and co-writer Christopher Ford struggling to stretch the story to feature length, but they nail the ending.

The level of peril that eventually finds Harrison and Travis will be a bridge too far for many viewers, but it makes for high drama and a few absolutely indelible images. The movie wouldn’t hit nearly as hard if it weren’t willing to get jet black.

Perhaps most impressively, “Cop Car” has a timeless quality that should age it well, laying out an obvious pathway from off-radar indie to eventual cult favorite. It’s a good bet for Kevin Bacon fans and thriller aficionados alike.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: August 7, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Focus World
Director: Jon Watts
Screenwriter: Jon Watts, Christopher D. Ford
Starring: Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Shea Whigham, Camryn Manheim
MPAA Rating: R (for language, violence and brief drug use)