Kevin Bacon makes good on an untrustworthy mustache in Jon Watts’s low-key thriller Cop Car as the crooked Sheriff Kretzer, whose police cruiser is stolen by a pair of runaway boys while he airs out some of his dirty laundry in the nearby woods. Bacon gives the sheriff a wiry menace as he desperately races to hide the theft from the rest of the department and figure out what the heck happened to his car, all the while the two kids, Travis and Harrison, (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford, respectively) drive across the plains and mess around with his gear.
While Bacon supplies a veteran air to the show in his solo scenes, the legacy of the Bacon number is assured for the next generation by Freedson-Jackson and Wellford, who deliver two of the most sublimely unselfconscious child performances of all time. Their naivete is as endearing as it is terrifying, from Wellford’s Harrison hiding a Slim Jim in his coat to protect from pickpockets on one end of the spectrum to their complete disregard for gun safety on the other. Stealing a cop car sounds like serious business, but thanks to their performances it comes off as a childish compulsion, an opportunity for fun wrapped up in play-pretend rather than any sense of maliciousness. They’re too innocent to be immature. These are, after all, kids young enough to believe themselves capable of running away from home for reasons kept mostly secret, though it’s easy to imagine given how well they’re drawn.
Their innocent performances make Cop Car a treasure trove of potentially line-crossing black comedy, As Watts and co-writer Christopher Ford plop them into all sorts of plausible danger based on their ignorance of how things work. The car rolls around because they don’t put it in park; Travis looks down the barrel of a rifle to see if it’s loaded. Making things even more unreal is their having run afoul of the wrong grownups, caught up in all sorts of trouble that ordinary adults would find difficult to comprehend. In return, Kretzer and the few adults the boys come across are as equally at a loss to explain the boys’ predicament. Watts takes great pleasure in resting on the faces of Bacon and his adult costars as they attempt to rationalize what’s going on.
Watts sticks close to Travis and Harrison’s perspective, making laughingstocks of the grownups whose frantic rushes to get out of trouble are witnessed with wide eyes. Without their witnessing it, Kretzer’s exploits would just be the makings of another seedy crime drama. Instead, Watts turns everything into a big game for both kids and grownups, and the jarring blend when their paths cross, and youthful incomprehension meets criminal irresponsibility, is a joy to behold.
Working off a lean script and shooting in the flatter part of Colorado, Watts makes a virtue of economy, delivering a taut picture that hides its deepest emotions until the right moment. Eventually the boys’ mounting dares reach a point of no return, and Watts drops any whiff of comedy altogether in a final sequence that is all the more satisfying for its uncertainty. Travis and Harrison ran away from home thinking they could make it, and Watts mercilessly shows them what it takes to do it.