It's rare that television has a big impact on the world of film, but Breaking Bad is surely one of the major exceptions of recent years. In the past few years, I've seen more than a few films that attempt to recreate the show's particular brand of suspense filmmaking: amateur criminals getting trapped in high-stakes situations that leave room for both white-knuckle tension and dark humor. Of course, Breaking Bad also borrows elements from the work of filmmakers like the Coen brothers, Michael Mann and Sergio Leone, so it can be tricky to pinpoint the exact source of inspiration. Still, you can see Vince Gilligan's shadow in films like Headhunters, Blue Ruin, Wild Tales and Night Moves (just to name a few). We can now add Jon Watts' Cop Car to the list, but like most of the other films I've mentioned, this one also has interesting ideas of its own to bring to the table.
The story begins as a riff on Stand By Me. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford, Before the Snow) are two rebellious youngsters (I'd guess around 10 years old or so) who have seemingly decided to run away from home. After a long walk through a large field, they reach a wooded area. In the middle of a small clearing, they spot an abandoned sheriff's department vehicle. After much hesitation, they discover that the door is unlocked and decide to get inside. Miraculously, the keys are still inside. “This is our cop car!” Travis crows. Harrison asks if Travis knows how to drive. “Yeah, sure. Mario Kart,” Travis shrugs. They drive off.
The kids would certainly be facing consequences under normal circumstances, but they're in far deeper trouble than they can possibly imagine. What they don't know is that the car belongs to the town's corrupt sheriff (Kevin Bacon, Footloose), and that the trunk of the car contains evidence of the sheriff's most recent crimes. As such, the sheriff is unable to call in support from his department, and needs to figure out a way to find the kids without raising suspicion.
Cop Car begins as a fairly harmless game of cat-and-mouse, and our initial instinct is to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. However, we quickly realize that the sheriff is not a man to be tampered with, and the film reveals a nasty streak that starts making us nervous: there is a very real possibility that these kids might not survive this situation. While there are those who may object to the way the film uses the threat of violence against kids to up the stakes, there's just as much tension that comes from the realization that these kids might easily kill themselves. Given their lack of control of the car, we're biting our nails every time they're required to do something as simple as pass another car on a two-lane road. By the time they discovered a pair of fully-loaded automatic weapons, I wanted to crawl under my seat.
Watts is gifted when it comes to putting an action sequence together, but his biggest achievement is the remarkable tonal balance he pulls off here. There are so many ways this story could have been mishandled. Push too hard in one direction, and you have nothing more than a glorified Little Rascals short. Push too hard in the other direction, and you have a movie that feels like it's getting off on being “subversive” (and God knows we have enough cult classic wannabes doing that). Watts plays things admirably straight, wringing caustic laughs out of the material without ever losing genuine empathy for our two young leads. These aren't the sort of preposterously smart movie kids we see so often, but perfectly ordinary kids who make the sort of foolish, irrational mistakes that kids often make.
As is often the case in childhood relationships, one of the boys is a lot bolder than the other... on the surface, anyway. Travis seems to be the one who instigates most of the foolishness (the film opens with Travis daring Harrison to utter increasingly “bad” swear words aloud), but when things get dangerous, he's just as likely to flee in terror as his pal. For all their reckless bravado, the two young actors ensure that we always remember these kids are just kids.
Bacon's fine work as the sheriff is built on an intriguing hypocrisy – he's a desperate killer trying to pass himself off as an Andy Griffith-style small-town lawman. It's clear that the sheriff isn't a good dude, but we're left guessing about just how nasty he is. Things get even more interesting when two additional characters get thrown into the mix: a baffled local resident played by Camryn Manheim (The Practice) and a best-left-undescribed character played by Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire). With their arrival, the film transitions from a game of cat-and-mouse to a far more complex, nervewracking game of cat-and-mouse-and-rattlesnake-and-dog.
Back to that Breaking Bad influence. It's there in the film's tone, which can be immensely entertaining and sweat-inducing at almost any time it chooses. It's also there in the film's craftsmanship, in the way that every scene takes time to ensure that we have a sense of space and in the way that every shot feels carefully considered (there's one particularly terrific shot of Bacon's eyes that feels so perfectly timed that it almost had to have been in the script from the beginning). What the movie doesn't borrow from Breaking Bad is that show's moral depth. This is fine thriller, but also one that dissolves fairly soon after it's over. That's partially because the film's ending is an uninspired fizzle, but also because the movie isn't particularly interested in being anything more than a fine thriller. Still, Watts is clearly a filmmaker to watch. His next project is yet another Spider-Man reboot, so let's hope the Marvel Machine doesn't completely crush his smart creative instincts.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Year: 2015