Staff Pick

Cop Car Is a Lean, Mean Thriller Stripped Down to the Bolts

By Robert Silva

When Kevin Bacon goes bad, you’d better hide the kids.

Cop Car is a thriller so minimalist, it might as well be a haiku: "Kids find a cop car / Strange sounds from inside the trunk / A windmill blade turns." The low-budget breakthrough from director Jon Watts (who’s gone on to direct blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming and its upcoming sequel), Cop Car has a stripped down quality that marks it as a crime film of a different order.

The setup is simple: Two adolescent boys find an abandoned sheriff's cruiser and take it for a joy ride. We aren’t spoon-fed their backstories, but the audience can fill in the blanks based on their behavior. The same goes for rest of the film's tight cast, company that will include a corrupt sheriff — played by Kevin Bacon with a low-key physicality — desperately trying to track down his missing cruiser, and the cargo in his trunk: a man (Shea Whigham, Boardwalk Empire and Vice Principals), bloody, bound, and justifiably unhappy.

We've seen enough movies to guess what might be involved in this dispute. Indeed, once Sheriff Kretzer starts slicing into bags of cocaine and dumping them down a toilet, further explanation is superfluous and Cop Car trusts the audience to put the facts together. In any case, these characters have taken a few wrong turns, and their priorities are correcting course, not explaining how they got there.

The two boys are too slow to judge the seriousness of their situation. They quickly find themselves playing a deadly version of cops and robbers, ending in a standoff with machine guns, and an adult bystander (Camryn Manheim) more clueless than they are. The boys’ innocence may be their own undoing: When they hear a beating from the car trunk (have they seen this scene before?), they discover Travis inside, and ask, "Are you a bad guy?"

"I'm a good guy," he reassures them. They free him, and soon pay for their good faith. They’ve been brought up in a fantasy world, informed by TV and video games, that leave them unprepared for real-life danger. They handle the guns they find in the cruiser with nonchalance, staring down the barrel, pointing them at each other. Guns are props, like the cop car itself. They trust the police officer when he radios his car, telling them they won’t get in trouble if they tell him where they are. But in the real world, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, even if they’re wearing badges.

This misplaced trust in adults is a theme in Cop Car, as it is in childhood. Bacon plays Sheriff Kretzer like an overgrown adolescent, but one who’s used to playing multiple roles: good cop, bad cop, surrogate father, killer. There's something immature about him, like his ridiculous mustache that reads as much as an affected symbol of machismo as the guns do for the boys. The sheriff, the man in the trunk, the savvy teenagers —­­ all think they know more than they do.

Even the film’s setting feels untrustworthy. Taking place in a rural area of Colorado where it’s more commonly believed people can (and should) trust one another, the movie turns country comfort on its head. Even here, the two teens might remember the first warning we’re all given: Don't talk to strangers.