If you haven’t seen Cop Car yet, you really should. It’s a lean, mean independent crime thriller about two kids who discover an abandoned patrol car and take it for a joyride, not realizing it’s owned by a crooked sheriff who has something very, very bad hidden in the trunk, and will do anything to keep his secret safe.
What ensues is a tense game of cat and mouse as the kids run from the sheriff (played with delightful skeeviness by Kevin Bacon) and put themselves in a world of trouble they really cannot comprehend. Meanwhile, the sheriff realizes he’s got to do something before these two little twerps spill the 30 years or so of jail time he’s got riding in the back of his prowler. What begins as a sympathetic (if reckless) bit of childhood shenanigans turns into a hair-raising account of two kids who quickly find themselves in way, way over their heads.
This is one of those movies that only has about a half-dozen characters, and the whole thing has a very pared-down feel to it. There’s not a lot of dialogue, no big set pieces, nothing flashy or overcomplicated. But it is tense as hell as we build to a mounting dread that however this story resolves itself, blood will spill. Will it be the boys? Most movies flinch before doing something really horrible to their young characters. The camera looks away, or the bad stuff happens off screen. Or, providence intervenes and spares the children the fate logic dictates they deserve, but sentiment demands they avoid.
Cop Car isn’t that kind of movie. You can just sense it early on, which is why the further it progresses, the tougher it gets to watch. Nobody really wants to see kids get hurt. But in this story, you wonder how they can possibly avoid it. Watching this movie is like that feeling you get as a parent when you see a child about to do something crazy dangerous and you simply cannot move quickly enough to intervene before somebody has to call an ambulance. You get the sense early on that the only reason why something tragic hasn’t happened yet is because the conditions haven’t lined up for it, but they will.
We spend much of this movie feeling an increasing sense of fright for these kids, first as they merely get into trouble, then take hideous chances with their lives, and then are forced to deal with some pretty monstrous folks. These kids enter the story having pulled one of those “we’re running away from home” moves that kids do when they’re young and never make it further than the woods at the end of the street. But then they found a cop car and made a bad decision that turned into an awful decision that turned into a life-threatening decision. In short order, we see two boys who are essentially innocent, despite their rough edges and clear need for a firmer hand at home, forced to grow up way too fast over the course of a single afternoon. And nowhere else is it more apparent than in this movie’s moment of truth, a truly malevolent monologue given in the eponymous cop car shortly before the climax. It only lasts for a minute or so, but it is the movie’s way of telling us that in case we hadn’t figured it out by now, playtime is most definitely over. Anybody who said that words can’t really hurt you clearly hasn’t watched Cop Car. Words can kill you just as surely as any bullet. It just depends on which ones you use and who gets to hears them.