A skimpy, unrewarding experience, Cop Car suggests childhood mischief colliding with adult terror. In a sun-blasted, yet perpetually overcast rural America, two kids wander across a cruiser parked in the middle of nowhere. With nothing better to do for miles around, they steal it, leaving the drug-dealing sheriff (Kevin Bacon) dumbfounded and scrambling to get his car back. Jon Watts loads his second film with wide location shots and dark humor, mainly built around the boys’ cluelessness–attempting something like an 80s Touchstone Pictures joint as directed by thriller-mode Coen brothers. They learn driving as they go, accelerating down a highway, swerving across lanes. Later, they root around in the sheriff’s backseat, and try out the loaded weapons (including an M16), though they never figure out what a safety is. For most of the runtime, their own curiosity is more dangerous than either Bacon’s cop or a rival drug dealer found locked in the trunk.
Cop Car spends so much time in this milieu, the supposedly real threat seems tacked-on, diminished. Bacon plays the sheriff as a slick conman, worming his way out of a situation. The carjacking seems more a workplace nuisance than blood-boiling (his performance, though great, is less threatening than the credit sequence, red and blues barely restrained by text). He loads up with an uzi, but never seems intent on harming the boys. His final act turn towards a Joy Ride-esque maniac, careening down the road and growling menacingly over the CB as he rams the cruiser, is unconvincing. The fact this moment comes and goes as a minor setback in the film’s denouement underscores how Watts, for all his portentous shots of cloud cover, doesn’t know how menace works.