A spurned mistress takes her married lover’s child for quite a ride in Detour, the slick and effective genre debut from German filmmaker Nina Vukovic, who earlier co-wrote the screenplay for the fairytale Nevermore, which won a student Oscar in 2007. There are superficial echoes of superior nail-biters like George Sluizer’s The Vanishing in this story that’s largely set in a vehicle and at a gas station, and which fuses suspense and thriller elements with a relationship drama featuring a handful of elusive and volatile characters, as well as an innocent child. A superb calling card for Vukovic, this Munich Film Fest premiere should see plenty of mileage on the festival and midnight-screenings circuit and will interest genre specialists far and wide.
After an enigmatic but captivatingly shot prologue, the film proper unfolds in two halves, the first of which stays close to the perspective of Alma (Luise Heyer), the twentysomething lover of Jan (Alex Brendemuehl), a man in his forties who’s already been married for 10 years and who also has a cute, 7-year-old redhead of a son, Juri (Ilja Bultman). When Alma gets into an argument with Jan about when or even whether he’ll ever leave his wife, she leaves in a huff with Juri, supposedly to a nearby bakery. But instead of buying bread and then returning him home, she impulsively decides to take him with her from his sleepy hometown to faraway Berlin.
When Alma realizes she doesn’t have enough money for train tickets, she asks the driver of a van with a Berlin address on it whether he’ll take them to the capital. Initially standoffish and wary, the somewhat sketchy character, who turns out to be called Bruno (Lars Rudolph), finally agrees to take them on board for the sum of money Alma does have on her. Besides stacks of newspapers that he’s delivering to gas stations along the way, the back of the van is filled with cages with small birds, one of Vukovic, co-writer Benjamin Talsik and production designer Uli Friedrichs’ numerous original touches that offers something eerie and spooky and unexpected while also working on thematic level, as the caged birds, headed to a destination unknown, might be foreshadowing things in the future of some of the protagonists.
The film’s main narrative unfolds in the present and thus mainly on the road, with some flashbacks filling in the details about the relationship between especially Alma and Jan. As their trip progresses, the somewhat disheveled Bruno becomes fidgety and the conversation between Alma and Jan morphs from a normal level of awkwardness that can occur in halting conversations between strangers into something that starts to feel a little creepy and sinister. Alma earlier made a hasty and crazy decision because she was slighted by her lover but when she makes clear to Bruno that she’s definitely not into him, it looks like he might make some impulsive decisions of his own. Helping to suggest the gradually darkening mood is Leonard Petersen’s increasingly restless and unnerving score as well as the immersive soundwork, especially when a summer thunderstorm breaks and rain starts pelting the van, creating a sense of sweaty, damp and very uncomfortable claustrophobia inside the vehicle.
Around the midway mark, the perspective shifts to Jan, who arrives by car at a gas station where Bruno earlier stopped with Alma and Juri and who’s there to pick up the two after Alma, who felt uncomfortable about where things might have been heading, has called him for help. But things don’t go quite as planned there and, initially, after some fruitless searching, Jan only meets Bruno. To Jan, however, the unshaven stranger with the wild look in his eyes is just that: a stranger. They go to the casino bar at the gas station for a drink, a place that’s all deep, enveloping shadows, murky mirrors and colorfully blinking slot machines, essentially setting the stage for a game of cat and mouse between the men. “You never know when you’re going to hit the jackpot,” Bruno says to Jan while dropping a coin into one of the machines. It’s a seemingly throwaway line that’s spine chilling as enunciated by Rudolph and directed by Vukovic, who knows how to combine atmosphere and delivery for maximum effect.
What happens next in the graduation film, which was set up as a TV movie but is so cinematic that it should be experienced in a proper cinema setting, will be kept under wraps here. Suffice to say that the rookie director smartly keeps things small while ensuring the pressure-cooker atmosphere that doesn’t let up, at least until its somewhat underwhelming finale. Overall though, Detour is an impressively directed, acted and assembled little genre number that makes it clear that Vukovic has a lot of talent and makes one curious about what she will do next.
Production companies: Siamanto Film, ZDF, Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie
Cast: Lars Rudolph, Luise Heyer, Alex Brendemuehl, Ilja Bultman
Director: Nina Vukovic
Screenplay: Nina Vukovic, Benjamin Talsik
Producer: Benjamin Talsik
Director of photography: Tobias von dem Borne
Production designer: Uli Friedrichs
Costume designer: Claudia Torsiello
Editors: Nina Vukovic, Benjamin Talsik
Music: Leonard Petersen
No rating, 80 minutes