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REVIEW: Two young and rebellious boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) take a walk along a wide open field, with one leading the way, spewing a number of profane words for the other to echo. They are apparently running away, guessing (most assuredly incorrectly) that they have walked for fifty miles. They have a single Slim Jim as their food ration. All seems well and good for their little adventure until they reach an embankment and stumble across a sheriff’s car parked near a thin tree line. They wait, but it appears no one is around, so they test the waters, so to speak. First they toss a small stone and hit the hood. Then they dare each other to touch it. When it’s clear there is no officer anywhere near the vehicle, they move in close and after popping open the driver’s side door, climb inside. An empty beer bottle sits on the front quarter panel. After horsing around, they discover the keys and after some experimenting, manage to start and drive the car away, slowly rolling along the vast open prairie, shouting, “This is our cop car!”
But of course, it isn’t. It belongs to Sheriff Mitch Kretzer, who we learn in a flashback is not the most law-abiding officer. He has a body in the trunk and he’s burying in a pit not too far away. That’s when the boys discover his car. When he returns and realizes it’s gone, he panics for a moment and then uses his phone to call dispatch, but not to report the car stolen, only that his radio is out and that if they need him, they should call his cell and ignore any chatter from his car. Then he grabs his bag of supplies he brought for the body and starts running. He needs to catch whomever stole his car. There’s still one more surprise waiting inside.
Directed by Jon Watts, Cop Car is about misdirection, a magic show where we are meant to keep our eye on the pretty assistant while we miss how the trick is pulled off. Supremely crafted, and equally well-acted, the film takes what seems like an illogical premise and not only sustains it, but keeps it plausible. Every possible inconsistency is accounted for before it swells out of control and while we think it is about one thing, it becomes about something else. This starts with the opening moments when a flashback is happening and we don’t even know it. This is a sure sign that the makers of this movie trust the audience and give its viewers credit. That’s not to say there are a few scenes that don’t work, such as when the boys play with the firearms found in the car, which in itself isn’t unbelievable, but is made only to startle the audience.
That said, it’s Bacon who really pulls this together. Sporting an exaggerated mustache and looking sinewy and weathered, he builds his character slowly, simmering at first and eventually to the necessary wild man the plot demands, but never missing a step or taking it too far. Bacon has always been a very charismatic and effective actor, and here again he is utterly commanding. He is not alone though. While the cast is sparse, everyone pulls their weight, including the boys who are trapped in an increasingly traumatic situation, having to constantly guess about the intentions of the adults they encounter. At a brisk 88 minutes, the convergence of these characters comes quickly and violently, playing out like a cross between a Coen Brothers film and Paul Thomas Anderson. This is a must-see film.
Scene Setup: The boys are well on their way, joy riding in the cop car. Sheriff Kretzer has been steadily trying to make it back to town to get a vehicle to find out who stole the car and where they are. He first steals a car from a trailer park, but is spotted by a friend of the vehicle’s owner and in a wonderfully silent moment that friend makes it clear that he is going to make a call, even though we never see him do it. Kretzer eventually is forced to ditch the car and makes his way back to his home to assess the situation.
The Moment (Timestamp 00:40:16): Using his cell phone while sitting in the cab of his pick-up truck, he calls into dispatch again. Flipping the CB radio on, he uses it to make static noises, fooling the operator into thinking he is in is patrol car. The operator tells him that they’ve got information about a stolen sheriff’s car, where a woman driving on a stretch of country road spotted the car with kids behind the wheel. Kretzer claims the woman must be crazy since all the cars are accounted for. He then instructs her to inform all cruisers to switch to emergency channel 7 and to keep this “malfunctioning” channel clear, just in case. She obliges and soon all cars call in, successfully retuning their radios. That leaves only his patrol car still operating on the original frequency. He calls the boys.
The scene is the defining moment for Kretzer. Quick thinking, one step ahead and clearly in control, we see him carefully manipulating Miranda, the dispatch operator, while calculating her reactions and easily convincing her of the situation he wants her to believe. It makes us wonder if this is not new for him and reveals an intellect that almost makes us question how he could have gotten into this predicament in the first place. What’s further revealing is his personality. Practiced and level-headed in crisis, he speaks smoothly and confidently to Miranda, and when it’s over, he stops and has a smoke, collecting himself (even the music shifts to a more relaxed tone). He goes inside and we meet his two massive dogs, kept locked in the house as he then picks up a potted plant and smashes it on the floor. The dogs cower a bit as if this behavior is nothing new. This is a truly scary character.
Cop Car is a fun, tense, and well-made thriller that packs a powerful punch in its short running time and could serve as an example for how a little minimalism and trust in the audience can better serve a film.