Even before the rise of crime-centered psychological thrillers in the late 1940s and '50s now known as film noir, Hollywood cranked out crime stories packed with heists, hold-ups, crooked cops and ruthless gangsters. Like the other genre films of that time (Westerns, sci-fi, etc.), the early crime movies delivered no-nonsense entertainment and seemed to thrive on the limitations of the form. That's the aesthetic behind director Jon Watts' Cop Car, a minimalist crime thriller that looks to the early films of Joel and Ethan Coen — Blood Simple in particular — for modern-day inspiration.
True to its roots, Cop Car's initial set-up couldn't be more straightforward: two 10-year-old boys (newcomers Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson) walking in a secluded field in rural Colorado stumble upon an empty police cruiser belonging to the local sheriff. Making the first in a series of very bad decisions, the boys take the car for a joy ride. We soon learn that Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) was nearby doing something lawmen are not supposed to do, which means that getting the car back without drawing attention becomes a matter of life or death for him. Complications and plot twists ensue as the upper hand shifts constantly among the story's five main characters.
Shot on a tiny budget with what may be the year's sparest screenplay, Cop Car manages to do a lot with a little. The wide-open spaces and extended silences give the film a feel all its own. At the center of the story is Bacon's tightly wound, criminally inclined sheriff, all bushy mustache and wire-rimmed shades, as he struggles to keep his life from unraveling through the actions of two innocent kids and a little bad luck. Bacon throws himself into the role with enough gusto to make the film's potentially too-familiar territory appear fresh.
There's a wonderfully disruptive scene in the middle of the film in which the sheriff is obliged to steal a car by first picking the door lock with a dangling shoelace. His struggle goes on way too long for a more conventional film but works nicely in the context of Cop Car. The scene also points to the ingenuity possible within the tight parameters of a genre film.
Both Wellford and Freedson-Jackson are completely natural as the rebellious but well-adjusted kids, even as Watts' script (co-written with Christopher Ford) renders them too unsophisticated for 2015 — especially since their repeated mistakes and the resulting dangers are the only things pushing the story forward. Cop Car's unpredictable turns and bitter ironies are unabashedly Coen-esque, but the strong presence of the two kids and their well-drawn friendship recalls coming-of-age movies like Stand By Me and The Outsiders.
Cop Car made waves at this year's Sundance Film Festival without earning any awards. But Watts won something bigger: based on the film's Sundance buzz — Cop Car is Watts' second feature and his first to receive theatrical distribution — Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures signed the 34-year-old filmmaker to direct the 2017 reboot of their Spider-Man franchise. It's quite a leap from Cop Car to the Marvel Universe, and we'll find out if "scalable" is a concept that applies to genre films.