Once upon a time, there was a student who used to like to stand outside my office and scream, “SUCK MY DICK!” at full sound barrier volume. He wasn’t alone—that school was home to many young men with similar heartfelt pangs—but he was uniquely persistent. One day, he stood outside my office and screamed “Suck my dick” a record 35 times, to which I responded, “Will someone please suck his dick? He seems to really need it.”
I’d love to believe my student was an anomaly—but he, like so many tweens his age, and the protagonists of Jon Watts’ shockingly great Cop Car—loved nothing more than playing in the world of violence, and never actually engaging with it. So shout out to Cop Car, one of the few coming-of-age thrillers I’ve seen in the past decade that not only (1) isn’t annoying but (2) seriously examines the distance between childhood play and adult violence. It’s an almost-perfect road thriller that no one will see but absolutely everyone should.
The ingredients for Cop Car should have everyone running (or walking. Or driving. We’re a sedentary people, Uproxx readers) away from the theaters. Dirty cops, tweens in a stolen car, Kevin Bacon with a mustache. From the outside, the movie looked like it would be so mind-blowingly, jaw-droppingly noun-adverb familiar. My first guess, based solely on the trailer, was that this was going to be a movie that explores the deeply intricate themes of: “Cops bad,” “Kids good,” and “I like cars.”
It turns out the movie does examine those topics, but with a real visual intelligence and lyrical leanness so hard to find in our giant farting filmic landscape. The movie opens with two characters, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), and Harrison (Hays Wellford) walking across a field, somewhere in the Southwest. Travis is teaching Harrison how to say dirty words like “f*ck” and “pussy,” and Harrison does his Hanson hair best to follow along. Later, Harrison and Travis reveal that they’re running away from their nice, Old Navy families, and the two jump into a cop car that appears to have been abandoned in a field. Neither can drive, but that doesn’t stop these borderline terrible, naaah actually terrible, tweens from stealing the car and driving it 100 mph on the highway. Kevin Bacon, the town’s local dirty cop, comes back later only to discover that his car has been stolen by pint-sized Mossimo model turd-tweens.
As the story progresses, the protagonists’ flirtation with violence becomes a real romance, and they are its primary victims. Bacon goes after them, as do others. Whereas so many coming-of-age dramas today brutally sentimentalize middle-class-white adolescence—where everyone talks like a GRE flashcard, and the worst crime you can commit is skipping skool!!!!—Cop Car understands these kids for who they truly are: humans. Travis and Harrison are two good-enough, bad-enough, kinda dumb kids, who, like so many teenagers in America, love the threat of violence, and are completely unprepared for its consequences. The cop attacks. A criminal attacks. Soon, their lives are forever upended by the man behind the Bacon brothers and an outrageous bloodbath of violence that I found—quite strangely—satisfying. They are forced to grow up.
In the wake of the Lafayette shootings, and so many others I’m too miserable to recite, it’s refreshing to see a movie that actually, genuinely, mourns gun violence, without unconsciously celebrating it. Pretty much half of our action-thriller canon reads, “Guns kill people and are bad!” followed by, “but kinda hot, riiiiiiight?” Cop Car is so skimpy with its violence that it never glorifies its despair. While there is blood, and guts, and murder, we’re not rendered senseless by its excess. It’s spare but it sticks. When loss happens, it matters. We remember it.
Of course, the movie suffers from a slight touch of melodrama, and the ending will subject it to a panoply of useless blogger e-critique. As the story progresses, the excruciatingly symbolic “open road” imagery only deepens: a story built for the very best book report. And the movie’s lyrical leanness is also its spiritual loss. Cop guy is bad guy. Bad guy is also bad guy. Woman who comes to help is good, also sacrificial lamb, because woman. Kids are good, bordering bad, but ultimately good, because kids. There’s no details to Kevin Bacon’s story besides the fact that he has a Craigslist car and a strip-mall shave. That accounts for the story’s poetic precision, but also, perhaps, its sometimes lack of substance.
Cop Car has deep Fargo undertones, and cinematographers Larkin Seiple and Matthew Lloyd (who actually worked on Fargo) aren’t afraid to draw the connections. Landscapes look washed-out and lonely, and real color only comes in a flash. Like the original film itself, the cinematographers have a beautiful melancholic (/adolescent grungy) love for their settings. You could watch this movie without any dialogue, or while under the influence of many beautiful substances (I vote valium!!!!), and still get a good-to-great story.
Cop Car is a thriller, and a road thriller, but ultimately: a coming-of-age tale. And it manages to do it without suburban teens moaning about college or having a stroke over prom or dying of cancer for our collective cultural consumption. Violence is a game that Travis and Harrison play, until it drags them into adulthood. They start with saying the word “f*ck” and the end with—here comes foreshadowing—being f*cked (symbolically, not literally, because no). Anyone who remembers childhood knows that growing up isn’t easy (unless it was for you, in which case, I’m unfairly angry from afar). Thanks to Cop Car for expressing it so carefully in a beautifully-wrapped genre package. Who knew it was possible?
Heather Dockray is a writer and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org.