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Cop Car shows where Spider-Man: Far From Home director Jon Watts learned action and storytelling

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The indie thriller is currently streaming on Netflix

Photo: Focus World

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

Cop Car, an offbeat crime film directed by Jon Watts and co-written by Watts and Christopher Ford. Set in rural Colorado, the movie stars Kevin Bacon as a corrupt sheriff who loses his cruiser while he’s in the woods secretly burying a body. James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford play Travis and Harrison, the two preteens who steal the car after they find it abandoned in the middle of nowhere with the keys inside. The movie cuts between two parallel storylines, covering the boys’ dangerous day of joyriding around the surrounding farmland while also tracking the sheriff’s increasingly desperate efforts to retrieve his vehicle without compromising his illegal operations. A hit at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Cop Car established the then-33-year-old Watts as a superb visual storyteller, with a knack for eliciting uniformly lively performances from a mix of youngsters and Hollywood vets. Six months after Cop Car’s festival debut, Watts was announced as the director of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Why watch now?

Because Watts’ Spider-Man: Far from Home is now playing everywhere.

Jon Watts’ journey from indie films to blockbusters has become a familiar story over the past decade, though the story doesn’t always end so happily. For every Rian Johnson who rises to the occasion and delivers a billion-dollar hit like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there’s a Josh Trank or Michael Dougherty who seems overwhelmed by the responsibility of shepherding a huge property like Fantastic Four or Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

So far, Watts has survived the demands of making Marvel movies. Spider-Man: Homecoming made more than $800 million at the box office worldwide, but it was also well-reviewed, and it helped revive a franchise that was floundering after the disappointing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (which was directed by another one-time Sundance sensation, Marc Webb). The reviews for Far from Home have been just as strong, praising Tom Holland’s performance as gung-ho teen superhero Peter Parker, Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as the mysterious Mysterio, and a zippy plot that’s a lighter, sweeter palate-cleanser after the heavy meal that was Avengers: Endgame.

How much credit does Watts deserve for this? The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an enormous machine that absorbs and homogenizes a lot of its contributors’ distinct flavors. It’d be hard to argue that either of Watts’ Spider-Man movies truly resembles Cop Car. Still, the skills the director displayed in his earlier film — a rapport with actors, a sense of pace and rhythm, and a willingness to trust that the audience can process visual information without dialogue — are essential to producing entertaining, enduring action-adventure movies.

What made Cop Car a calling card for Watts was its smart use of resources. With a reported budget of just $5 million — and a location in a flat, relatively featureless stretch of Colorado — Watts relied a lot on carefully chosen camera angles, using the wide-open spaces to control the way the audience perceives the sheriff and two kids. Early in the story, the characters are often seen from a distance, looking like tiny, adorable toys. When the action intensifies toward the end, the cop’s stern, mustachioed head frequently fills the frame, obscuring the openness of the surrounding fields. Some of Cop Car’s most gripping scenes are essentially silent, letting nervous faces tell the tale.

Photo: Focus World

Who it’s for

Fans of the Coen brothers and punchy crime novels.

Though Watts handled his Spider-Man assignments well, ideally, he’d now follow in the footsteps of Rian Johnson and Christopher Nolan and use his clout from having worked on a huge moneymaking franchise to persuade producers to back his original ideas. When Cop Car debuted at Sundance, audiences and critics raved about its similarity to Joel and Ethan Coen’s classic 1984 debut feature Blood Simple, in that both are set in small-town Middle America, and both are about people blundering into problems they can’t solve. The movie has a strong, darkly comic point of view, not at all like Watts’ Marvel work.

A lot of the fun of Cop Car comes from watching Bacon as the sheriff, using the power of his office to keep his colleagues off his trail before getting tripped up by a couple of dopey kids. And these boys are dopey. Travis and Harrison aren’t anything like the precocious youngsters in movies like Home Alone or The Goonies. They’re impulsive and naïve, and don’t know anything about the car they’re driving or about the police guns they find and play around with in one harrowing scene. Watts and Christopher Ford keep Cop Car’s plot simple, with almost no backstory, and they keep the situation plausible, with characters who behave like real people. This is a finely crafted slice-of-life… just with a few dead bodies strewn about.

Where to see it

Netflix. Adventurous types could also track down Watts’ debut feature, Clown, a grotesque horror-comedy (also co-written with Ford) about a haunted clown suit that turns its wearers into child-murdering maniacs. It’s not for everyone, to say the least. It’s uncompromisingly odd.