Sundance: The Artful Adventures of Cop Car and White God



Jon Watts’ Cop Car makes a huge impression. Big titles smack the screen, a slick score over it, informed by the red and blue flashes of its titular vehicle. Then, wide open space. Single, picturesque frames of the nature about to get stomped through by two ten year-old boys and a pair of violent criminals. It’s breathtaking, as perfectly placed looks at American land can be. Finally, a word. “Wiener.” 

I’m almost confident my laugh broke out first. In Park City’s Library Theater at the midnight Sundance premiere of Cop Car, the serenity breaking utterance of “wiener,” followed by a second voice, echoing… “wiener,” was immediate and infectious. This boys’ story, a loss-of-innocence adventure had broken into the beautiful landscape, as many have before, and announced itself as a Great Time. Then, it followed through.

Simple and straightforward, and stunningly made, Cop Car is about coming-of-age and bravery, and playing with shit you know you should not. The latter is the source of most unbearable tension, and incredible fun. Harrison and Travis (Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson, respectively) have run away. From what? We don’t know and likely don’t care. It feels just like any number of times you took off down the block as a kid, your sincerity matched by the feebleness of the single Slim Jim you brought to live off.

On this journey, they come across the lone police vehicle. A rock, a dare, a touch later, they’re inside and they’re thrashing across the lovely land so still before. It fucking rules. Watts sharply rides with and around the kids, forcing the audience to wrestle with their inner child and inner parent simultaneously. Your smile is huge, your stomach in knots, as the practical achievement of the driving scenes seem at once extraordinary and delinquent. It only gets worse, as it’s revealed the car belongs to a corrupt sheriff in the form of a mustached Kevin Bacon. Putting in a refreshingly physical performance, Bacon is all grunts, sighs, and leers; a cool, criminal customer after his property.

And what property! Following their joy ride, the boys park and unpack, taking firearm inventory and giving many of the audience severe agita in the process. The two, still boasting mischievious innocence, twist, turn and handle the AR-15 and defibrillator machine every which way. Sight, sound, taste and touch—almost all senses come in contact with the weapons, as Watts maintains his interest in a propulsive picture, not finger wagging.

The finger wagging comes from Camryn Manheim, hilarious as an authority figure, the type of adult who scolds other people’s children. Though not angelic, she’s certainly a saintly counterpart to Bacon, and the manic Shea Whigham found in the cop car’s trunk. The second half of the picture then finds the boys caught between it all—between good and bad behavior, between a truly violent feud—and making their own way out together.


Similarly, Kornél Mundruczó’s acclaimed Cannes film and Sundance selection White God focuses in on an adventurous, adolescent bond, that of a girl and her dog. Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her pet Hagen don’t have the luxury of stomping through nature however. Partly because of their place in the world—Hungary decidedly not the sort of place for American juvenile mischief—and partly because of their breed. Lili is a daughter, Hagen is a dog. They’re tossed between parents and told where to go. As Hagen, a dog of mixed breed, is unregistered (and looked down upon) he’s soon discarded by Lili’s stern father. Their heartbreak and shared frustration with the world around them inspires something big.

Now on separate trajectories, Lili must contend with the conservative adult world alone, while Hagen is passed through a ringer of abusive owners, each attempting to exploit the dog. Finally, White God explodes. When Hagen is captured by authorities, he leads a revolt of the “impure” and abandoned dogs through the streets. Though Mundruczó often employs striking, considered shots throughout the film, little is as powerful as his capturing of hordes of real dogs charging the streets, fiercely attacking citizens and sending the city into a frenzy. It’s intensely visceral, and what truly supports White God’s subtext, concerned with broader ideas of class difference and the support of both uprising and harmony, to more specific European tensions.

Like Cop Car, a film light on dialogue, White God is most affecting in its tremendous, bold imagery. In the latter half, Mundruczó uses the iconography and aesthetic of both nature-run-amok and slasher films. Here, it’s nature stomping through our world, either in unreal stampede, or as Hagen stalks his captors from the shadows, teasing with noise until a vicious, cathartic attack. At one point, both human and animal lie down, finally on the same level. Meanwhile in Watts’ film, one most certainly not concerned with imparting a “message,” just the stressful imagery of the ten year-olds toying with automatics is enough to reconsider your stance on gun control.

Perhaps what makes Cop Car the superior of the two is that it is more interested in being a genre piece, in its Boys Adventure style, and having a sense of humor both within and about itself. Unfortunately, White God’s admirable, maybe grim, sincerity ultimately detracts from the thrill of its second half.

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Weekend: Jun. 27, 2019, Jun. 30, 2019

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