Writer/director Christopher Smith’s Detour has all the hallmarks of a noir thriller: law student and basically nice guy Harper (Tye Sheridan) falls into the bad company of Johnny (Emory Cohen) and his stripper girlfriend Cherry (Bel Powley) during a drunken binge at a bar. Harper’s mother is in a coma after a car accident and he believes that his stepfather Vincent (Stephen Moyer) is responsible. Seeing a chance for some quick cash, Johnny offers a deal: for $20,000 he’ll drive with Harper to Vegas and knock off Vincent. Harper agrees, but wakes up the next morning with Johnny banging on his door and has a quick change of heart. Johnny won’t take no for an answer, so off Harper goes on a road trip to either kill his stepfather, or find a way out of his predicament. But nothing, as the cliché goes, is what it seems.
Detour aspires to the contemporary neo-noir heights of Brick with the Grindhouse qualities of Death Proof. References to classic films noir abound: a poster of the Paul Newman detective homage Harper appears in our hero’s bedroom, and clips from the original Detour from 1945 play an amusing and meta-narrational part as a voiceover in the early sections of the film.
For anyone versed in noir and its offshoots, much will be familiar in Detour: an interlude in a roadside café, a violently insane crime boss, the tough guy with a streak of cowardice, the corrupt cop, and the good guy pulled into a world of crime and violence from which he can’t quite escape. Smith utilizes the weapons in his noir arsenal to occasionally brilliant effect: misdirected focus, split-screen montages, hallucinatory scenes shot in wide-angle, and the layering of apparently innocuous moments all contribute to an overall sense of a downward spiral into a noir-tinged hell.
The problem with Detour is that none of these elements really come together to form a cohesive whole. While the movie pushes at the boundaries that filmmakers like Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez regularly break, it never quite manages to cross them. Detour is not quite certain whether it’s a film noir or a pastiche of film noir, and so vacillates between both.
Good pastiche depends not only on the glancing references to other films, but in creating something new and provocative out of those references, so that the viewer can both recognize the homage being paid and experience something unique. Detour can occasionally manage the homage, and occasionally manage the originality, but fails at uniting the two.
Some of this has to do with the dialogue. While it’s nice to see a neo-noir that doesn’t indulge in Tarantino-esque explosions of oratory (or, for that matter, explosions of guts), Detour still manage to hit its own mark in hard-boiled dialogue. Certain scenes feel like they were intended to give the film a more extreme flair, but the promise isn’t followed through. While we’re asked to delight in Johnny’s tough guy performance that conceals his basic cowardice, he’s neither a true hardass nor a particularly good tough-guy philosopher. He’s just a thug, and a stupid thug at that.
To that end, it’s difficult to buy Emory Cohen as a badass, however many neck tattoos he sports. He still does not yet possess the weight of the truly dangerous, and while we might imagine that Johnny exaggerates his own persona, we need to feel just how unhinged he’s likely to become. Bel Powley is wide-eyed and sentimental as Cherry, the stripper with a heart of gold, but her character is not fully developed enough to produce more than glancing interest.
The best of the bunch is Tye Sheridan as Harper – Harper is indeed an unapologetically nice character, a guy beset by grief and anger whose momentary lapses of judgment send him spiralling into a noir netherworld. He’s a likeable screen presence, a good balance of intellect and the dumb terror of an innocent man. I believed in him more than anyone else, and truly did want him to come out of this debacle intact.
If Detour is an uneven film, it still has much to recommend. Few classic noirs are really good films – they’re B-pictures, filled with bad women, vicious thugs, and anti-heroes puffing on cigarettes. Detour borrows its stylization, but it does so to excellent effect. Whole sections pop with the energy and vitality of a quality B-picture. The twists and turns of the narrative are handled capably; the construction of the images and intercutting of different sections of the story indicate a deft if slightly inexperienced hand. Detour is not quite great, but it is one crazy mile along the road.
A strong but occasionally uneven noir thriller, Detour has flashes of B-picture brilliance.