Cop Car is spare in the extreme. The story is simplified to a single basic premise, and features only a handful of characters. Its major distinguishing characteristics are a streak of cynicism that verges on misanthropy and an almost complete lack of sentiment and sympathy. This gives the film its overriding identity, making it an effective, but somewhat off-putting, little thriller. That is not entirely a plus, especially since the film has a take-it-or-leave-it style of filmmaking that is mostly utilitarian, and it poses no weighty moral issues for the viewer to take away. It just is. That may or may not be enough, depending on the tastes of those watching it. Then again, these very same things can be said about many — if not most — drive-in movies from the 1970s.
The story concerns a pair of 10-year-old boys — Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) — who are making a desultory stab at running away. (This is the kind of running away that normally would end at dinner time.) What makes this a different proposition is that they come across an abandoned police car in the middle of nowhere. After exploring it with little trepidation, they find the keys and decide to try out their largely nonexistent driving skills. What they do not know is that the car belongs to singularly corrupt Sheriff Kritzer (Kevin Bacon), who was busy disposing of a body while they were making off with his car. Worse, they are unaware of the presence of another — battered but still living — man (Shea Whigham) in the trunk. As well you may imagine, Kritzer is desperate to get his car back before anyone else gets to it. While there are embellishments and complications along the way, this forms the story, and apart from a woman (Camryn Manheim) who unwisely gets involved, these are the only significant characters.
The film is at its best when it’s generating suspense and dread in its later sections, especially once you come to realize that there’s no place the film is afraid to go. This is not a cozy tale where you know no real evil is going to come to these boys. It’s also pretty effective in detailing Kritzer’s panicked — but savvy — efforts to regain his car and its contents. Far less successful are the film’s more light-hearted scenes of the kids being kids — or at least a movie-ized notion of what that means. Strangely, the screenplay occasionally rings true in this area, but the depictions fall short of the believable. However, the big thing to remember is that this is a fairly mean little movie and is not going to be to everyone’s taste.