Prairie road trips can get your imagination going into overdrive!
Spending so much time in the foothills and on the plains is great for storytelling. You might be getting away or heading towards something in all that open ground. The huge spaces are canvases for wonderful stories, real or imagined, like a giant screen on which to project our tales. But as I’ve said in other posts, the scenery is often so much more than a background for stories. It can be a vital character, or help reveal character. It can shape events, and encourage us to confront what is real or important. In fact, the background becomes the foreground, goes from being passive to active, alive, and sometimes kicking.
I was thinking about this whilst watching an entertaining little movie, Cop Car (dir. Jon Watts, Focus 2015) recently. A road movie/coming of age drama/crime thriller, it is a new addition to my favourite outdoor or wilderness movies. As before, I’ve likely stretched the definition of what makes an outdoor or wilderness movie, and decided Cop Car fits the bill. For the most part, the tale is told under vast skies, on rural roads and along two lane blacktops snaking through golden grasslands. So, definitely an outdoor movie (or an almost outdoors movie!)
The story is quite simple, almost plotless. Two young runaway boys stumble over an “abandoned” police car and take it for a joy ride. The corrupt police officer wants his car back because there is incriminating evidence in the trunk. That’s pretty much the set up. What elevates the piece is a fine performance by Kevin Bacon, sporting a tremendous moustache and in fine scary bad cop mode. The outstanding use of the Colorado grasslands creates an unusual setting for all the drama. These elements, plus a short running time and economical script, combine to create a gripping tale. It’s rural noir! The details are all there – late model cars, old pick up trucks, lots of dust, and the occasional cow – if the movie had been shot in an urban setting, it would have been less effective.
It opens with the two young boys walking across the grasslands, repeating curse words, verbally testing where they are prepared to push the boundary, where they might cross a line. It’s a dare. They reach a literal boundary, a barbed wire fence, and choose to climb through, and push on in their attempt to escape whatever is behind them. Each time they dare each other and achieve a minor success, we know they are in fact digging themselves a deeper hole. You feel for them, recognizing their need to escape, but knowing they probably can’t.
If this all seems a bit downbeat, you might be right. However, there is an enjoyable vein of black humour and sly wit running through the movie. An example is when one boy leans over to check the speedometer, and the needle is barely flickering on 30mph. He glances at his buddy doing the driving, and then resignedly slumps back in his seat, choosing to say nothing. Haven’t we all been there?!
Parts of the movie reminded me of Rob Reiner’s wonderful Stand By Me, where the rhythm and flow of serious, yet essentially innocent, childhood conversations are captured with such clarity. Like Stand By Me, the boys treat their situation and surroundings as a big adventure, obviously mimicking what they’ve seen on TV or read in books. You know that their relative innocence is going to be lost as the story unfolds, and they become entangled in affairs beyond their understanding. When they find the police officer’s weapons and use them as toys, it is almost too hard to watch.
Because the story takes place in the wide open spaces of eastern Colorado, there is nobody about to assist the children. They are left to their own devices. The prairie setting gives the story the necessary room to breathe, the space for it to unfold. The beauty of the landscape is a contrast to the brutality of the adult characters.
There is a sense of unease throughout the movie, contrasting with the humour that raises a smile even as it unsettles the viewer because we fear for the boys. The sight of a bathrobe-clad criminal, rifle in hand, hopping from small bush to small bush by the roadside, searching for a place to make an ambush, is both funny and disturbing. And how about playing with conventions? The cop car as getaway car? A cop stealing a car? This is a movie full of small delights.
The boys’ youthful naivety in trusting adults at face value is painful, and made worse by their geographical isolation from potential help. You may predict how it will all play out, but you stay with it because it is played out so well, and in stunning locations. It might not suit all tastes, but I enjoyed Cop Car for being a little different, a blood and dust prairie road trip worth taking.
The movie doesn’t do much for police recruitment in rural Colorado, but it might encourage those in search of their own (peaceful) big adventures to take a road trip out that way. Big skies and big landscapes await you! Just don’t be tempted by an apparently empty police cruiser…
As always, please feel free to share a story or leave a comment. Have you seen Cop Car? Maybe you’ll catch it this weekend, or it’ll catch you! (All of the photos here were taken the past few weeks in Alberta during our prairie explorations – not Colorado, but a pretty good stand in!)