To compare Cop Car to the films of the Coen Brothers, or even Nicolas Winding Refn would be a disservice to writer/driector Jon Watts. Jon Watts’ talent and skill should be at the forefront of every review. It is undeniable that his name will one day be used in the highest sense – “That film is very Jon Watts…”, “A Jon Watts like film…”. The prophetic Cop Car completely stands out from the rest of films as it remains a truly whole and original film.
It’s no secret that fandom has picked up as Jon Watts was announced as the director for the as-of-yet untitled Spider-Man reboot in 2017. While interest piques as speculation abounds for his upcoming film, it would better service those that see the movie and/or are talking about it to remain fully grounded in what Watts has already created. Cop Car is a film so primarily straight-forward and simple. It’s not concerned with anything fancy and that is precisely why Cop Car comes across as such a classically American piece of cinema.
When the film opens to two boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), our first introduction to them is their marathon of saying various obscenities. The opening of language never feels gratuitous or jarring as the idea of kids using exploring their vocabulary (no matter how foul) is almost standard now. It’s strikingly authentic as it remarks on the real innocence of youth. Travis and Harrison couldn’t be less concerned with being “hip.” Instead, Watts presents them as boys being boys. Almost 50 miles into their journey away from their homes, the “f” word is “the worst cuss.”
The authenticity of youth on film is not betrayed by any aspect of Cop Car. It’s only elevated by the acting, the lens of Matthew J. Llloyd and Larkin Seiple, and the beauty of Phil Mossman’s score. It’s an excellent throwback to the era of the minimalist score. Some where in a time before the 80’s over usage of synthesizers, the boys come across what they believe is an abandoned cop car. They work up the courage to take it for a joyride after excitedly sneaking over to touch it. Again, it’s a sincere moment of boys being boys, perhaps more so boys needing to be boys. We’re told Harrison lives with his grandmother and guinea pig, and Travis with his mother, stepfather, along with a pet snake and dog. Are they trying to escape the emptiness and loneliness of their lives and futures? We’re never fully told nor do we need to be. Their journey is enough to understand that as sure as the beer bottle vibrating off of the hood of the cop car will fall, both Travis and Harrison will seal their futures as they begin their joy ride. “This is our cop car now.” But it isn’t. The car is quickly revealed in a nearly silent sequence to be that of Kevin Bacon’s Sheriff Kretzer. The Quinlan County sheriff comes across as a distinguished villainous figure from the 70’s and goes on to pull a body out of the trunk. He seeks to bury it and Bacon delivers each moment with a ruggedness and weariness. Director and co-writer Jon Watts shows his mastery over seamlessly transitioning Cop Car from a coming of age tale to what Focus films are calling “a delightful throwback thriller.”
The precarious nature of Jon Watts’ film is easily a thriller of the highest degree. He creates certain moments rife with uncertainty over the boys eventually colliding with the real world ramifications of a harmless joy ride (Camryn Manheim’s Bev) and the perils of probability – Will Shea Whigham’s Man be the boys saving angel or will Bacon’s Sheriff Kretzer? There are moments of such intensity that the payoff of such tension comes across as an oddly biological relief. The way Mossman’s score takes a wild turn into a frenetic pace is another high moment for Cop Car, as well. There’s a scene within the film that reveals Travis and Harrison innocently playing with the guns they find in the cop car. There’s such a queasiness to it that several members during the screening turned their heads. Watts is clearly a master of knowing how to make us cringe in just the same way he knows exactly where the funny bone is. There are normal staples of cinema, especially American, that refuse to go down certain paths nearly as certain as we know their are certain words never to utter in public or against others. But here, Watts throws those rules and expectations out the window and leaves it on the road behind us as this Cop Car furiously moves along. There’s a terrible notion that one of the boys could get hurt, but surely Watts would not venture down that road, yes?
Cop Car is a film complete with moments of pure, unrestrained freedom. We get this feeling that with every deed and misdeed, it’s all being watched as we conduct ourselves under the heavens. It’s a feeling only added to the film as the cinematography chooses to reflect on the American skies as Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, and Hays Wellford crash into one another. As the sun sets on this one day, the path of these lives are undeniably touched by the perilous nature of our world and all it offers. In any others hands, Cop Car could be as forgettable as the next thriller, but in Jon Watts’ hands – we now have another installment in the realm of movie making that ensures a bright future for real film makers. This is Jon Watts’ cop car now!
Cop Car opens August 7th. What’cha Reading gives it five stars.