Cop Car (Jon Watts, 2015) Somehow both nauseatingly tense and lighter than air, Cop Car is a hell of a calling card for sophomore director Jon Watts. It’s the type of violent, atmospheric, clever, and comedic indie that used to light up videostore shelves in the 90s, yet is tricky to find these days. The tightly wound little movie might unspool a bit at the end, but it’s enough of a showcase that Watts managed to land the new Spider-man movie from it. By the time the credits roll, it’s hard not to get excited about what this talented new filmmaker might deliver for the wall-crawler.
Cop Car opens with a vast shot of one of those evocatively baron southern US landscapes, the type that seem to defy era and feel effortlessly moody. We see two small figures buried in the frame and gradually Watts brings us close to them. James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford play a couple of kids who ran away from home as a way of killing the afternoon, looking for anything to provide some cheap thrills and maybe even a little trouble. Eventually they stumble onto an abandoned cop car (see title) and decide to take it for the ride down the long and lonely highways surrounding them. The filmmaker then takes a step back and we see that car belongs to Kevin Bacon’s dirty cop (see moustache) who left his vehicle unattended to dig up a shallow grave and bury a body that he has locked in the trunk. Obviously, that means he’s none too thrilled when his car goes missing and he has to get it back quietly with no one else on the force noticing. So, looks like those kids found that trouble they were looking for, huh?
The contrast between the kids innocent misbehaviour in the car and Kevin Bacon’s shady dealings is Cop Car’s bread and butter. Watts plays with the two tones throughout and the way they bump into each other is milked for all sorts of humour, thrills, and suspense. James Freedon-Jackson and Hays Wellford are remarkably well cast and charmingly naturalistic. Watts (and his co-writer Christopher D. Ford) give them playfully foul mouthed dialogue the likes of which rarely makes it to the screen anymore and they run wild with it, delivering some wonderfully full and funny performances (as well as some pained dramatic work when that time inevitably comes). That half of the movie has an almost Bad New Bears feel to it that Watts occasionally pushes over into his arthouse exploitation tone of the other half of the movie, such as the scene where the kids play with guns they find in the car with a chilling disregard for safety.
Kevin Bacon dominates the other side of the story and he’s absolutely remarkable. Looking sickly thin and sporting the least trustworthy big screen moustache since the 80s, he’s not a specter of evil but a sleazeball whose not to be trusted nonetheless. It’s clear the guy is trouble from the moment he wanders on screen, but Watts and Bacon do a good job of slowly drawing out the extent of his nasty innards. The whole movie unfolds casually and matter of factly. Dialogue is fairly minimal and the plot seems to slowly pile up accidentally out of a series of events. Watts gradually ratchets up the suspense and hints of violence as the running time wears on and Bacon embraces his role as the big bad even more. The actor never stretches outside the realm of sad little small town dirtbag, but the way that image contorts through the eyes of the kids can be a little more frightening (especially when it’s far more clear to the audience how he’s manipulating the kids than it ever is to them).
Watts and his cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd create a gorgeous film out of minimal locations and sets. They use their endless landscapes to their advantage and rely on careful camera placement and pulse raising editing techniques to grind out their thrills amongst all of the naturalistic character comedy. As a darkly comic violent mood piece reminiscent of something like The Coen Brothers’ debut Blood Simple, the film works wonderfully well, serving up plenty of rousing entertainment, shocks, and sick laughs. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to run out of steam slightly towards the end, delivering a climax and finale that work yet don’t quite feel as satisfying or fresh as what came before. Perhaps the ingenuity of Cop Car was in the dual narrative/tonal set up and eventually it had to become a regular ol’ thriller. Or maybe the filmmakers just couldn’t quite stick the landing. Either way, the movie does slip away into convention in the last 20 minutes or so. Thankfully the preceding 65 are so damn strong that it’s hard not to admire what Jon Watts and co. pulled off.
Cop Car debuts on Blu-ray in a nice, yet budget package. The HD transfer is beautiful to be fair. Given that Watts and his cinematographer rooted so much of the look at atmosphere of the film on baron landscape shots, battered faces, and grizzly close-ups, it really benefits from a gorgeous transfer that adds to the impact of the piece. The audio is more simple and minimalistic, yet fills speakers well and adds to the atmosphere. Unfortunately anyone hoping for a decent special feature section is setting themselves up for disappointment. There’s a pointless 3-minute EPK annnnnnd…that’s it! It’s a real shame, because a commentary from Watts and/or Bacon would be enough to make the disc worth picking up. But alas, none of that. To be fair, Bacon was probably off making a dozen or so movies and Watts is a little busy over at Marvel at the moment. Still, the Blu-ray is undeniably a disappointment in the extras department. At least the film is solid though, so it’s certainly worth a look. There’s just not much on this disc to discourage streaming it instead.