As adults we do every single thing in our power to be young again – to shirk our responsibilities, to be “hip” and “with it” and “now” – and we sometimes forget that when we were kids we actually wanted to grow up. We wanted to have the power to own cars and swear freely and do important jobs. We wanted to escape into adulthood as much as we now want to retreat back into childish capriciousness.
Jon Watts’ grim new coming of age tale Cop Car has been largely discussed in relation to what it’s not. It isn’t a cute and cloying story about pre-teens finding an abandoned cop car and high-tailing it into adventure. It isn’t the sort of film in which a bumbling sheriff throws his hat to the ground in exasperation yelling, “Dang it, those kids got away again!” But what the heck is it?
Perhaps it is a cautionary tale. Cop Car stars Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson as Harrison and Travis, two pre-pubescent punks who run away from home and into a police cruiser left mysteriously out in the desert. They screech off into the horizon, thrilled about their incredible new adventure, and play with the loaded weapons from the backseat in scenes designed to bemuse and shock in equal measure.
Disaster seems imminent, and that’s even before we are introduced to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), whose car they stole while he was busy disposing of a dead body. Stranded in the wasteland, but not without resources, he makes his excuses to flee his own responsibilities and track down Harrison and Travis, hopefully without incident, but with homicidal violence if necessary.
Harrison and Travis are funny kids, because kids are funny sometimes. But their assumption that they know the way the world works, and that they can get away with just about anything they want, smashes headlong into Kretzer’s own tale. He too has abandoned an orderly world to suit his own satisfactions. He too finds himself stealing a car and making phony reports on the CB radio, and using deadly weapons outside the realm of the law. But he is a murderer.
And we find ourselves wondering just how similar he must have been to Harrison and Travis at their age, and whether the other dangerous maniac who gets unleashed upon these children might have been Kretzer’s friend too, once upon a time. We don’t see too far into the inner worlds of these men. We only see what they have become. The only glimpse we get of how young boys come of age in the world of Cop Car is in the form of two careless little kids, and they wind up behind the wheel of a squealing squad car, abused, changed forever, and perhaps en route to a similar fate as their pursuers.
Cop Car is filmed with the grim determination of a Cormac McCarthy saga, and a matter of fact tone that amplifies the humor and reduces the horror to its base, everyday components. It may start out as a common wish-fulfillment fantasy but it evolves into a crime drama of an unnerving calibre, a devilish subversion of youthful fantasy and a viciously sabotaged adult thriller. The sick quirks of fate transform a lazy summer day into a nightmare, and a violent scheme into a gross little farce.
And we sit there, wondering if maybe adult responsibility was worth dreaming about in the first place, and whether the fantasy of being young again is really worth the trouble. Deal with what you have, play by the rules, and beware of low-hanging fruit. That abandoned cop car is not a fairy tale, and that little line crossed at work really is a highway to Hell.
Images via Focus World
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.