Promising and disappointing all at once, Jon Watts's backroads thriller Cop Car heralds the arrival of a significant director, one adept not just at the usual action and suspense but also at the fleet, affecting depiction of lives as they're actually lived.
In the opening scenes, the camera glides alongside elementary-school boys as they tromp through a field in one of those empty stretches of Colorado where the plains lift toward the Rockies. The kids dare each other to say out loud the most unspeakable words they can think of; then they slip through one of the barbed-wire fences that stitch their world from horizon to horizon, and the camera slides through, too -- Watts stirs the sense that we're picking along the landscape with them. That immersion in the kids' vague adventure peaks with the film's inspired first revelation: The boys find a police cruiser, far off the road. A door is unlocked, the keys are in the seat, and there's nobody around.
So they joyride, and the film -- for its first twenty minutes -- lets us do so, too. Watts, who co-wrote with Christopher Ford, is sensitive to his small-fry heroes' fears and enthusiasms and playful illogic.
Movies must grind on for 90 minutes, though, and Cop Car soon succumbs to indie-thriller generalities: the sumbitch sheriff (Kevin Bacon) up to no good, a shootout along a stretch of two-lane blacktop, a pitilessness about killing off incidental characters that might feel to the filmmakers like tough-mindedness but plays as grimdumb cruelty. Watts and his crew capably stage and cut all this, but the material is expressive of nothing except its own movie-ness.