Film Review: Detour

Writer-director Christopher Smith’s crude slab of pulp fiction has a few nifty twists—and a painfully retrograde attitude towards its female characters.
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Tye Sheridan, the charismatic young lead of Mud and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, broods, scowls and schemes his way convincingly through writer-director Christopher Smith’s faux-sleazy, hyper-stylized neo-noir, Detour. Sheridan stars as taciturn law student Harper, severely distressed about his mother, who teeters near death in a coma, while he seethes with rage at his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), whom Harper suspects deliberately caused the car accident that landed his mom in the hospital. Sulking over his whisky at a dive bar, Harper randomly encounters a volatile young hoodlum, Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), and initiates a tense (but not as tense as it should be) tête-à-tête in which the two strangers casually discuss “taking care of” Harper’s cheating stepdad.

The seemingly offhand exchange results in livewire Johnny showing up the next day at Harper’s family’s doorstep, dragging along his hair-trigger temper and his bleached-blonde moll, Cherry (Bel Powley), and pressing Harper to follow through on the murder contract he ordered on Vincent. At this critical juncture in an innocent young man’s life, he can slam his finely carved door in the face of evil, or he can agree to hit the road with troublemakers like Johnny and Cherry. The film’s first twist is a split, as Detour plays it both ways with a bifurcated narrative that follows Harper getting into the car with Johnny and Cherry, and driving to Las Vegas, where they plan to intercept Vincent with his mistress. Meanwhile, a parallel plot follows Harper closing the door on Johnny’s murder plot to confront Vincent on his own. In true noir style, all signs indicate that nothing good can come of taking either fork in this road.

At the outset, Smith’s slow-burning thriller is too loosely paced, dominated by longwinded exchanges of some clunky, hard-boiled dialogue (e.g., “You’ve been hawking me through your pig blinkers since I walked into the place”), and a few meandering long takes that don’t add suspense or detail, just delay. Genre-hopping filmmaker Smith made his feature debut with the Franka Potente-starring stalker thriller Creep, followed up by a pair of well-received horror films (Severance, Triangle) and even a daffy holiday comedy, Get Santa. Here the director dives with gusto into modern film noir, road-movie edition, sticking to Godard’s “a girl and a gun” adage, and jazzing up the presentation with a slick soundtrack, ultra-wide-angle lenses and multiple split-screen montages.

For the most part, the back roads of South Africa look fine filling in for the desert highways between the West Coast and Vegas, and, essential to this sort of picture, the lead car, a ’73 Mustang, has real star quality. Amidst the mayhem and murder, there’s also one badass tricked-out pickup truck, that unfortunately does little more than sit idling menacingly in the background, as Smith supplies no significant car chases or action set-pieces. Suspense builds but the action throughout is minimal, with the few out-and-out fights awkwardly staged and much of the onscreen (and implied off-screen) violence inflicted upon Cherry. She sometimes gives as good as she gets, but still is constantly terrorized by her apparent pimp Johnny and used as a bargaining chip in his conflict with a degenerate gangster named Frank (John Lynch).

Every woman here who’s not in a coma or customer service is a stripper and/or a hooker. Fortunately, Powley’s sharp performance as Cherry renders this wily femme fatale as more than a victim, although the film doesn’t bother to suggest how or why she’d have relinquished her agency and security to Johnny, a pretty ineffective criminal. Beyond the threat of violence, it’s hard to see what possible hold he could have over her; she seems so much more resourceful than he is. He’s a man, she’s a woman seems to be the only explanation, and a problematic one at that. As Johnny, Emory Cohen, whose winning, if unsubtle, performance opposite Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn made that graceful romance sing, paints with appropriately broad strokes here too. But he doesn’t read as the frighteningly intimidating tough guy. The film’s best asset is Sheridan, who plays Harper as a tightly wound yet remarkably well-composed lamb lost among wolves. Harper’s in over his head, perhaps, but never outmatched, and Sheridan’s quick-witted portrayal, a controlled mix of smooth moves and darting glances, keeps this zigzagging misadventure reasonably on-course. Compelling in close-up, he’d have made a splendid silent-film actor.

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