Sometimes, there’s no cinematic pleasure quite as potent as a barebones genre story told with skill and intelligence. Jon Watts’ stripped down rural noir Cop Car is one such heady rush, a film that builds its setup with so much care and deft tonal tightrope-walking that you almost don’t care when the finale falls slightly short of the first half’s promise. Its first minutes feel simultaneously mythic and intimate, the camera following two ten-year-olds as they meander across a quintessentially American prairie landscape, trying the choicest curse words they can muster on for size. Many a classic tale of American literature has begun with a rebellious young boy and his best friend striking out across the plains because home life just doesn’t cut it anymore. And while this isn’t quite Mark Twain, it’ll do.
The efficiently mounted plot gets going almost immediately when the runaways (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) come across an empty police car parked on a dirt road. Their bluster-coated naivete is painfully obvious as they goggle wide-eyed at the weapons in the backseat and goad each other to take the wheel. Soon enough, as the combination of one-upmanship tendencies and perpetual immersion in semi-fantasy worlds common to young boys basically guarantees, they abandon what little sense they started off with and embark on a (temporarily) exhilarating joyride down the Colorado back roads. It turns out, however, that the car belongs to a crooked sheriff, played with beady-eyed relish by a desiccated-looking Kevin Bacon. When the kids were stealing his car, he was off burying a body. And there’s a second one in the car’s trunk.
For all their cynicism, neo-noirs (and the filmmakers I mentioned, including Watts) don’t lack for a sense of humor. It may be jet black and expressed with the disbelieving chuckle of a condemned man looking out at the crowd that came to watch him hang but it’s there.
This could easily have been the setup for a generic (as opposed to genre) thriller but an accretion of creative decisions—large and small—sets Cop Car apart. Watts is riffing off the neo-noir traditions perfected by directors like the Coen brothers or John Dahl, setting up a universe of implacable cruelty in which the good (or, at least, the not-yet-corrupted) are frighteningly vulnerable to the horror wrought casually upon them by forces entirely out of their control. In contrast to what passes for a thriller in so much of mainstream cinema today, those filmmakers—and Watts after them—know the advantages of patience and economy. Shots linger, conversations ramble, pauses drop just to let you take in someone’s wordless reaction; character-building is done as much via implication and body language as verbal exposition. Textured worlds are meticulously constructed to give structure to the essential chaos the filmmaker attributes to our collective existence. Life is random chance and won’t end well but once that bullet is fired at you, time and physics suddenly become inevitable, a sick joke. The gears of this simple yet intricate plot grind along to its bloody conclusion step by inexorable step and what gets to you is the sheer intransigence of the meat-grinder of life in this genre. You get the sense that if these kids escape this mess, another will come along to swallow them up soon enough. Watts has a proclivity for sustained long shots that frame fragile human figures against timeless vistas always on the brink of swallowing them up.
For all their cynicism, neo-noirs (and the filmmakers I mentioned, including Watts) don’t lack for a sense of humor. It may be jet black and expressed with the disbelieving chuckle of a condemned man looking out at the crowd that came to watch him hang but it’s there. Thrumming with tension though Cop Car is, it’s also hilarious, making a running joke of the lengths to which the increasingly desperate sheriff will go to get his car-full of incriminating evidence back. Bacon is the key ingredient here, with Watts goading one priceless reaction shot after another out of him in what is, for long stretches, a silent film. None of that undercuts the aforementioned tension though. Pathetically desperate and often comical though his character is, the menace radiated by Bacon’s death’s head features is real. It’s not just him either. The most chilling monologue in the film is delivered by veteran character actor Shea Wigham in a role whose presence doesn’t even register till halfway in. The danger the children—not to mention innocent bystanders—are in feels just as real, manifested in the film in abrupt and unsettling fashion. But danger cannot be felt by an audience if it has no sense of the characters involved. Watts switches perspectives throughout the film, following each character through long stretches of it, immersing us in their individual mindsets and frustrations. Even a seemingly unconnected character wanders through the narrative at one point, leaving us to discern why until we get an answer we might not have wanted. Despite the juggling of viewpoints, however, the film is distinctive for how relentlessly in the moment its storytelling is. There are cutaways and flashbacks but they’re all restricted to the span of the few hours covered by the film. Background events—the details of the sheriff’s criminal activities, the reasons for the boys running away—are left oblique. Cop Car is about living (and dying) in the moment and, as such, ably represents the ethos of its nihilistic cinematic ancestry.