Cop Car is the second feature helmed by 34-year-old director Jon Watts, and it is hands down one of the best new thrillers that I have seen in quite some time. Somehow, it’s a Coen Brothers crime thriller that features no involvement from either Joel or Ethan, an unblinking gaze into Everytown, America, full of heartless thugs and killer cops, long empty highways, oppressive silence, and inevitable death. There are only five characters of significance, all but one in search of an exit, and the sweet, sweet voice of Kyra Sedgwick as the unseen dispatcher. It’s moody, cinematic, and not to be missed.
Two elementary-age boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), have run away from home; after travelling what they guess must be fifty miles, they stumble across a cop car in a thicket. After a series of escalating dares, the two end up finding the keys to the car and taking it for a joyride, where they nearly run Bev (Camryn Manheim) off the road. Unbeknownst to them, the car belongs to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), who left the vehicle behind in order to drag a corpse to what I can only describe as his “murder hole,” a covered hole the size of an old well, where he drops the corpse and sprinkles it with quicklime. He returns to discover the car is gone, along with the other body (Shea Whigham) in the trunk.
I can’t really say more than that without giving away too much; I only recapped what could be gleaned from the trailer in the paragraph above, and even that feels like it verges on being too spoilery. The film’s appreciation for the seemingly endless vastness of rural living, the way it extends for as far as the eye can see while you’re standing in the middle of it, is captivating in its paradoxically warm yet clinical approach. There’s an inherent serenity to the calm and quiet of dry country, and the way that this peacefulness is disrupted and destroyed throughout the film is effective every time. The tension in the film begins almost immediately, and the way that it builds as the boys innocently and stupidly play with deadly police equipment (including a defibrillator which one child is preparing to shock himself with before he is distracted) plays out like a Fibonacci sequence of increasing anxiety as things get worse and worse, in the best possible way.
Bacon plays the sheriff’s spiraling mania and intermittent calm with perfection, and Whigham’s character is also delightfully terrifying. The film has a great deal of trust in its audience’s intelligence, which is a rarity in contemporary film, and the movie refuses to spell anything out for you or hold your hand through the narrative. The most Coen-y thing about it, however, is the way that you, as a member of the audience, are expected to fill in the blanks and the backstory. We never are told for certain who Whigham’s character is (he’s never even named), why exactly the Sheriff had him in the truck, or who the other person was, although it can be assumed that it has something to do with drugs. Why are these boys running away from home in the first place? That’s for you to decide, making the film more immersive than it would be if we knew more about the characters’ home lives than the tidbits we get. If you actually want to be on the edge of your seat this year, check out Cop Car.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond