‘Cop Car’
Director:
Jon Watts
Stars: Kevin Bacon, Shea Whigham
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The storytelling gimmick, best used in thrillers, in which no single character knows everything that’s going on, and therefore makes wild mistakes, is so strong it’s bizarre it’s not used in more movies. “Blood Simple,” the Coen brothers’ debut, makes fine, oft-hilarious use of it. “Cop Car” does too. It begins with two bored young boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and  Harrison (Hays Wellford) swapping cuss words, like any kids who just discovered them, while traversing an unforgiving, barren, Deep South landscape. Their idle wanderings lead them to a police vehicle, parked in the middle of nowhere, it’s doors open and keys in. They decide to take it for a joyride, thinking nothing bad can happen.

Only after we’ve spent a good chunk of time in their perspective that we jump back to see its owner, Sherrif Kretzer — a buzz cut creep with an authoritarian mustache and also a corpse he’s fixing to bury in a place where it will never be found. He has no idea who took his car, but it has something incriminating in it — something that won’t be found by the car’s pint-sized owners till much later. As in “Simple,” one knows everything, and we’re thus privileged with a detached god-like ability to observe as they make dumb decisions, especially if they’re two boys who would be pretty stoked to find themselves clutching deadly weapons. 

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“Cop Car” is nowhere as assured as “Blood Simple,” and even a little sloppy. One minor character, played by Camryn Manheim, exists primarily as a plot device when the script appears to needs her. One can imagine director Jon Watts and his cowriter Christopher Ford bringing her in after throwing up their hands a few too many times. But it does know how to mix and match its inspirations into something both familiar and personable. Watts and Ford, like the Coens, seem to be great admirers of Cormac McCarthy, from whom they borrow arid locations, pitiless twists and sparsely-deployed dialogue that exists not as quotables or as anything worth remember, but seem like part of a blank landscape. (If this were a novel, one would imagine them sans quotation marks, just as in McCarthy books.)

Watts’ direction never treats this like a straight-up thriller. The careful cinemascope allows grim realism to mix with deadpan, dark comedy that never spills over into outright yuks. Bacon, long a reliable source of intimidation, makes Kretzer both scary and faintly buffoonish — a guy who thinks he can charm his way out of problems he never should have gotten into, whatever those may be. (Why Kretzer is trying to bury two people is one of many things never explained.) Eventually character actor extraordinaire Shea Whigham swings by, eventually getting too chew relentlessly on the script’s one case of beautiful dialogue: an elaborate and bizarrely inventive monologue that seems like it may never end. We won’t say “Cop Car” runs out of steam or takes a wrong turn, but its pat ending does seem like a minor miscalculation. Before then it seemed like a new cult classic had emerged fully formed. 

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge