Review: ‘Cop Car’ feels a little too Coen Brothers-lite and that’s not a good thing

The third annual Sundance NEXTFEST kicked off Sunday evening with a screening of “Cop Car” at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in conjunction with Cinespia.  The thriller debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT selection and has become a buzzed about title because its director, Jon Watts, has been chosen to helm the next incarnation of the “Spider-Man” franchise.  We”re not exactly sure what Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures saw in Watts” helming of  “Cop Car,” but that”s a topic for another day.  

Set in the outskirts of a small Colorado town, the movie begins with two young kids making their way across a wide-open field in search of anything, something to entertain them.  Travis  (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) talk about how they are running away from home, but it sounds more like bluster than anything else.  To their surprise, they soon come across what appears to be an empty county sheriff”s patrol car.  Curiosity gets the best of them and they are soon sitting in the front seats playing make believe cops and robbers as kids are want to do.  What they don”t notice is the bottle of beer on the automobile”s hood.  With no one in sight the duo take the keys, start the engine and begin a euphoric joyride through the countryside.  Numerous indie thrillers have shown us previously that this can't end well.

The man responsible for the actual car just happens to be the highest-ranking officer in the county, Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon doing what Kevin Bacon does).  Watts quickly explains why the car is there by providing the audience with a flashback to minutes before the kids arrive.  Kretzer has a beer, takes his uniform off, drags a dead body out of his trunk and then dumps it in a secret pit.  Upon his return he discovers his car is missing and immediately begins a panicked quest to figure out who took it and how he can get it back without his own officers discovering that he”s involved in some sort of drug deal gone wrong (an unfortunate and unimaginative cliché). Predictably, the sheriff and the boys meet, but it”s in the context of a climactic shootout the viewer never believes puts the kids in real danger.  And, yes, that's sort of a problem.

Watts co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher D. Ford (“Robot & Frank”) and, frankly, it”s not as clever or compelling as it wants to be.  The boys are not memorable enough and it”s hard to imagine the sheriff can get away with harming them in any fashion in order to get his car back.  That significantly lowers the stakes from the beginning.  Walsh and Ford try to spice things up by introducing a wildcard who also doubles for some comic relief, but it”s a window into what the movie could have been.  Along with Walsh”s direction, the proceedings start to feel awfully Coen Brothers-light and you”ll wonder at times if the film could be some Colorado spin-off to Noah Hawley”s TV series based on the Coen”s classic “Fargo” (that probably sounds strange, but you'll understand in context).  Whether intentional or not the similarities in tone are too obvious to ignore.

The filmmaker does deserve credit, however, for conjuring up some nicely tense cinematic moments.  In one case, Kretzer is pulled over by one of his own officers because the automobile he”s stolen is missing its tags.  Kretzer quickly calls in a fake distress call to try and get him away from the vehicle, but is willing to kill him if he has to.  Watts also uses an innocent bystander that has caught the kids driving the car (a wonderful Camryn Manheim) to play with the audience”s emotions in devastating fashion.

Most disheartening about “Cop Car,” however, are the two young men at the center of the story.  No one ever wants to find fault with child actors and Freedson-Jackson and Wellford may be true talents, but, sadly, they are almost forgettable here.  For “Cop Car” to soar Travis and Harrison have to be the audience”s number one concern and that simply isn”t the case.  

“Cop Car” opens in limited release on Friday and arrives on VOD on August 14.