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Harper (Tye Sheridan) is a bright young law student with a solid future but is setback by a family issue. His mother is in unstable condition in the ICU drifting away in a coma. How she got there is a cause for concern for Harper who believes that the car accident she was in was not an accident but rather the work of his stepdad Vincent (Stephen Moyer) who is decidedly less than compassionate about her condition.
At a local dive, and a little drunk, Haper prattles off about his situation to a boastful thug named Johnny (Emory Cohen), going so far as to offer $20,000 to off Vincent. The next morning though, Harper wakes to discover Johnny and a stripper girlfriend named Cherry (Bel Powley) at his front door, demanding they head to Las Vegas to kill Vincent. Reluctantly, Harper concedes and gets in the car, where they head away along a twisted, violent road.
Meanwhile, Harper also doesn’t get in the car and instead stays home and confronts Vincent on his own, one that creates an equally dangerous and unpredictable situation that goes just as badly. Two roads diverge and both lead to hell or so it seems, as things on this journey are nothing like what they appear.
Written and directed by Christopher Smith, Detour starts as a duel timeline story that wears its influences on its sleeve and has a strong premise that works hard to create a multi-layered mystery, using snappy 50s style dialogue, split-screen techniques and callbacks to craft a kind of neon noir-ish thriller. While the road trip narrative is packed with style and lots of great imagery, it lacks the necessary momentum and character investment the genre demands, despite some genuinely compelling moments.
It’s difficult to nail down what Smith is trying to say, that no matter the choices we make, there are consequences and repercussions beyond our reach, or that things have a way of working out no matter what the road is littered with once it does, but either way, the small odyssey we take in getting to the end is less than impactful than we might hope for. Smith certainly commits to his methods, easing up in the third act to allow the threads to bind, but the split-screen framing, which has great use in the right movie, actually strips away a bit of the mystery as it makes it clear we are meant to divide our attention rather than question what we’re witnessing. That we find out what is actually happening far too early also deflates a bit of the potential for a more shocking end. It’s made more frustrating by a series of contrived coincidences that are surely meant to be part of the ‘life happens’ theme the plot centers around, but comes off as easy-way-outs rather than possible story hurdles.
Sheridan, who has proven himself a powerful young voice in prior films, especially in Jeff Nichols‘ 2012 Mud and David Gordon Green‘s even better 2014 Joe, here is left treading water, not given a chance to dip into the shallows and rise to the emotional peaks the character seems wanting to do. Cohen, who has does great work before, doesn’t have the menace needed to compel Harper into action, though does well revealing a different side of the thug later in the story. Powely comes off best as Cherry, a bundle of surprises throughout.
That all said, Detour is an ambitious film that may struggle with keeping us invested in the characters but does manage to keep us interested in what happens next for most of the runtime. While everything appears to have some importance, especially as we see scenes played out from different angles, we are tasked with considering alternatives, even if some introduced characters don’t end up with any weight after all.
Detour is as a solid diversion and for film school fans will offer plenty to talk about but is a trick that doesn’t have the pay off it should. A film lost in a netherworld of implausibility and ‘movie-land’ tropes, it remains a lost potential that looks good but falls well short.
Movie description: Detour is a 2017 drama about college student who gets involved with a dangerous man whom he hires to kill someone he claims is responsible for something very bad.
Director(s): Christopher Smith
Actor(s): Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley