The Morality of COP CAR

On Jon Watts' terrific film and the nature of consequence.

Boys will be boys, as they say. Only they don’t usually say that in the context of two ten-year-olds stealing a police vehicle belonging to a crooked cop who wants to track them down before they discover the body in the trunk. That right there is all you need to know about the goings on of Jon Watts’ modern Western-thriller Cop Car. It’s a fun, hilarious, gripping and audacious road trip across the badlands, told through the eyes of two kids who ran away from home, as they now find themselves running away from a drugged-up Kevin Bacon and his sinister mustache. It’s also one of the most interesting morality plays I’ve seen all year.

The film’s story hinges mostly on action and detail. What little dialogue it does have belongs mostly to its young leads. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) is the more adventurous of the two, the kid who ‘s not afraid to get into mischief, or get his friends into trouble. Harrison (Hays Wellford) on the other hand, is the cautious learner. He rations their supply of Slim Jims, storing them in his overly large jacket, as Travis and his popped collar and spiked hair lead him further into the wilderness as the film begins. Finally away from their families, the two boys are able to swear openly, though Travis has to convince Harrison that it’s okay, and they even grab sticks and disturb snake-holes during their walk. They’re kids who know right from wrong, but go ahead and do the wrong thing anyway, knowing full well they could get caught. They’re also the center of their own universe, a universe in which their “crime” (running away from home) is something the cops might arrest them for -- which is why they’re so startled when they find a cop car out in the middle of nowhere. It fascinates them, and as a symbol of heroism as they understand it, they can’t help but see themselves as the people driving it.

Their world is black and white. They’ve been raised on a retributive system, both at home and while learning about the law, and they’re slowly discovering the rush of partaking in what’s “wrong” as long as the possibility of getting caught is at bay. To them, even touching a cop car is a transgression so out of line that they think they can get in trouble for it, but they do it anyway. The lack of an authority figure in sight, and thus the lack of any potential consequence, leads to the escalation of their activities. Touching a cop car. Throwing stones at a cop car. Sitting in a cop car and pretending to be heroes!

Stealing a cop car.

What they don’t know, however, what’s revealed to the audience after they’ve sped off, is why the car was there to begin with. Kevin Bacon’s Sheriff Kretzer had parked it out in the middle of nowhere because that’s where he had come to bury a pair of bodies. After dragging the first one away to a familiar spot, he comes back to finish the job, only to discover that his car has disappeared without a trace. And that’s where the fun begins.

The rest of the story involves the two boys having to make increasingly complicated decisions depending on the situation they’re in. As it turns out, the body in the trunk isn’t quite so dead (merely bound), and they have to wrestle with which of the two men in the situation, the cop or the criminal, is the “good guy” and which one is the “bad.” At one point, Harrison manages to get a hold of a gun, and while the man in the trunk uses the two boys as bait after threatening their families, the boys take turns pointing the gun at him from the back seat as he waits outside. Do they have what it takes to kill a man, even if it’s for self-preservation? And in doing so, are they now aiding another man they believe to be dangerous and out to get them?

The nature of consequence, as the two boys see it, goes very quickly from something general and universally understood (punishment) to something far more personal and subjective (the guilt of taking a life) and the abstract becomes tangible, as the questions they’re asking become less about whether or not they should do something “wrong” and more about whether labels such as “right” and “wrong” are applicable at all. While the boys’ only real crime is having a bit of fun with a car, they’re thrust into a situation where their innocence translates to ignorance, as they stare down the barrels of guns belonging to two different mad men. Their simplistic view of the world and the people that inhabit it keeps getting them into further trouble, and the first person we see die on screen is a woman trying to do the ostensibly noble thing herself by reporting them to the police, but the film’s view on morality isn’t as cynical as it might seem.

Ultimately, their collective survival hinges on one of them working to save the other, not to give too much away, and after having been put through the kind of whirlwind that no ten-year-old should have to experience, the decisions therein rely once again on a binary understanding of right and wrong. But, as if being chased by a murderous cop weren’t unnerving enough, they’re now hesitant to make the kind of decisions that would’ve once come easy to them. Because of everything they’ve seen, they no longer know for sure whether trusting the police, the people they once thought of as good, is the best course of action. But they do. In the end, even after having learnt the stark reality of a world that’s more complicated than the black and white we’re taught, and having learnt it the hard way, the boys come out of it alive and somewhat heroic, something they wouldn’t have been able to do if they didn’t believe in doing what’s “right” in the first place. What the cop car turned out to be ended up paling in comparison to what it once represented for two little boys.

This was originally published in the August issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. See Cop Car at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.