2015 has been a great year for indie movies. To wit, three of the best films I've seen this year have been micro-budgeted films that have seemingly come out of left field but gained no small amount of notoriety and critical praise. IT FOLLOWS set the independent horror filmmaking clock back to zero and stands along the best of the genre (JOHN CARPENTER'S HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, to name a few.) Joel Edgerton's suspense-thriller THE GIFT (see review below) was on no one's radar but has played in theaters for several months due to strong word of mouth and could very well be headed for Best Original Screenplay honors come awards season.
Which brings us to another - though, sadly, lesser seen- standout that also puts a fresh spin on a well worn genre: the rural crime drama which includes such esteemed company such as Terrence Malick's BADLANDS, The Coen Bros' BLOOD SIMPLE, and Clint Eastwood's A PERFECT WORLD.
COP CAR, which was released in early August and is just now available on DVD, stars degree-defying stalwart Kevin Bacon as Sheriff Kretzer, a crooked police officer who we discover isn't much in the brains department but has man aged to outsmart himself during a clandestine cover-up operation by leaving his cruiser unattended (and keys still in the ignition) in a barren field on the outskirts of town. Two pre-teen boys, Travis and Harrison, stumble across the abandoned vehicle and decide to go on an improvised joyride. When Kretzer realizes his folly, he furiously tries to recover his car while also trying to cover his tracks.
Travis and Harrison teach themselves to drive as they meander down a largely untraveled highway but their unexpected adventure is interrupted when they start to uncover clues that the owner of their purloined ride is up to no good. Camryn Mannheim co-stars as a woman unfortunate enough to witness the boys careening down the two-lane blacktop road while the increasingly ubiquitous character actor Shea Wigham appears as one of Kretzer's loose ends in human form.
Director and co-writer Jon Watts (the script credit is shared with Christopher D. Ford) allows the story to dictate the atmosphere and pace of the film which is a hybrid of sorts of STAND BY ME and BADLANDS, two other films that begin with a similarly idyllic tone and slowly amp up to suspenseful and even frightening at times. The casting of the two young leads (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellsford) is the film's masterstroke as both actors are completely believable as well as unaffected in their naivete and competitive repartee.
It's Bacon however who provides the crucial element of menace as well as some humor as Kretzer stands among the greatest of dumb movie villains who still manages to keep the audience on edge. The actor appears lean, haggard, and sports a drooping mustache that seems to mirror his intelligence.
COP CAR is a thoroughly enjoyable and captivating film and like the best independent films, it's greatness surpasses the limits of its budget and artistic restraints.