It’s been such a long time since I saw kids just be kids on screen. No coming of age business or no themes of bruised innocence, just kids being kids. Maybe it speaks to most of the films I watch or the films being made these days but there was simply something soothingly nostalgic about the opening bits of Cop Car, moments we are allowed to savour before reality sets in.
Two eight year old boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) wander through the dry fields of a still Colorado with sticks in their hands (not phones or tablets and I miraculously saw no earphones) freely uttering series of cuss words although Harrison cannot bring himself to say the “F” word – “that’s the worst cuss” he says. As the kids make ground they happen upon an empty police vehicle in the woods and after a series of childishly coy manoeuvres, the kids gather courage to get into the car and they soon find the keys. The stuff of childhood fantasy is about to become reality but Harrison has his reservations about playing around in a police car. “What if someone sees us?” Travis hits back with one of the lines of the year – “we’ll just tell em we’re cops”.
Travis and Harrison take the car for a long joyride without a care in the world. They play with the siren, they stop to wind around with the yellow police tape and they even get their hands on a couple of assault rifles (but the kids couldn’t work the safety – thankfully). This is absolutely an unreal experience for the kids but director John Watt’s film very much resides in the real world. Things start to get dark when we meet the bad cop with the creepy “pornstache” look played by Kevin Bacon. He had come down to the woods do away with a couple of bodies and was disposing of one in a pit of when the kids chanced on the car. He returns to find his police car, with a body in the boot, missing.
The film cycles between the kids and Bacon’s perspectives as the former go on with their fun almost oblivious to the consequences whilst the latter amusingly tries to get ahead of this mess to avoid an even worse scenario. You sense the two parties are bound to meet as the film’s tone slowly gets darker as dusk approaches and you truly start to worry for the boys. The fun and games were long over before they realised. Affairs culminate in a tense cringe-inducing standoff that is a step away from ending this film on a very disturbing note – certainly a far cry from the heart-warming opening. I guess this film ends up straying into the bruised innocence territory after all. The opening scenes are strong and enjoyable enough but the bleakness still ends up as gripping as they come.
The performances of our two young leads are anchored in a commendable level of realism. Could 8-year-olds drive a car? Perhaps. Perhaps not but their inquisitive charm is infectious. Bacon’s performance is rife with moments of enjoyable dark humour and Watt’s direction is extremely compact and simple with long sections of this film almost passing for a silent film – his camera provides a lot of cues and does a lot of work. The final moments of this film are ambiguously distressing and our director knows that. He really tests his audience, he definitely tested me.