Cop Car is a succinct, nihilistic, often dialogue-free comedy of humans who’re engulfed by indifferent terrain and plagued by dumb, lunatic luck, initially suggesting a fusion of Dennis the Menace and “The Ransom of Red Chief” by way of No Country for Old Men. Two pre-teen boys, Harrison (Hays Wellford) and Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), are wandering the desert, alluding to having run away from their families. At first, we assume they’re playing, associating their actions with typically harmless boys’ mischief. We can tell that Travis is the instigator of the two, while Harrison is the comparatively meek follower. Soon, the children come upon an abandoned patrol car and dare one another to touch it. Then, they dare one another to enter it. And soon they start the car up and steal it outright, a telltale beer bottle that was left on the hood falling off from the rattling of the engine. Driving the car through a fence and onto a dusty highway that appears to accommodate roughly one driver a month, Harrison and Travis embark on a disturbingly advanced crime adventure.
The narrative derives much of its tension from the unsentimental ambivalence that director Jon Watts displays toward Harrison and Travis. The boys are movie kids, photogenic and clever beyond their years, but they aren’t adorable or even likable. Harrison and Travis are a little old for the self-absorption they display, and, over the course of the film, they grow so mercenary as to suggest the behavior of sociopaths, at one point holding guns to the face of an unnamed man (Shea Whigham) who they find in the trunk of the car. By this point, flashbacks and cross-cuts have revealed that this vehicle belongs to corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), who’s involved in a drug conspiracy with this prisoner that went awry. (Kretzer has already dumped one body in a shaft, chasing it with lime.) The boys remain terrifyingly invulnerable throughout these escalating developments, their callousness to the precariousness of their situation growing quietly infuriating, which serves to shift the audience’s sympathies to Kretzer, an immoral man who at least has the sense and the dignity to understand that he’s in a deep load of shit.
In other words, Cop Car is a film for people who watch Looney Tunes and root for Wile E. Coyote. As played by Bacon with a clipped mustache and a body that’s still all-wiry muscle, Kretzer even somewhat resembles a coyote, wolf, or some other under-fed animal of the desert who’s seemingly conjured from the ether of the boys’ boredom. Bacon has a talent for deflating pomposity, and he’s also wonderfully capable of caricaturing menace without compromising its essential scariness. He’s one of those actors who can render any casual action transfixing, and Watts understands that. A well-staged shoot-out climaxes the narrative, as it usually must in American crime films, but the most thrilling scene in Cop Car is a prolonged moment in which Kretzer fastidiously attempts to pull an old jalopy’s door lock up with a looped shoe lace. This scene would serve as a perfunctory setup for a car chase in many thrillers, but here it’s a self-contained vignette in its own right, testifying to the comic tedium of a killer who’s attempting to restore to his life whatever passes for equilibrium. Cop Car is a suggestive, elegantly streamlined genre film, and Watts clearly has talent, but it could use more of these moments of cracked, nitty-gritty chaos.