‘Detour’: Film Review

A skin-deep neo-noir.

Tye Sheridan, Bel Powley and Emory Cohen hit the road together in a crime thriller written and directed by Christopher Smith.

Borrowing its name from Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget hard-boiled classic and a key plot device from one of Hitchcock’s finest, Detour is a movie built from unabashed nods toward a thriller lexicon. But even with three of the big screen’s most dynamic up-and-comers at its center, there’s no flesh and blood beneath all the posturing. Christopher Smith’s self-consciously stylish genre homage finally feels like a baby film noir, playacting without the requisite bone-deep dread.

British writer-director Smith (Creep) uses a Strangers on a Train riff to set the dark and twisty road trip in motion. In the moody neon light of a bar, Los Angeles law student Harper (Tye Sheridan, Mud) meets loudmouthed criminal Johnny (Emory Cohen, Brooklyn), and the conversation drifts to Harper’s desire to teach a lesson to his despised stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer). While Harper’s mother lies in a coma in a hospital bed, Vincent is about to leave for one of his frequent flights to Las Vegas to visit a girlfriend.

Unlike the eager killer in the Highsmith/Hitchcock story, Johnny isn’t offering to trade murders with his new acquaintance. He’s in it for the cold hard cash, and he names his price. But while Harper believes — or professes to believe — that their talk of solutions to the stepfather problem is theoretical, Johnny shows up at his door the next morning, ready to hit Sin City. For reasons that are gradually revealed, Harper eventually agrees to the trip, insisting they take Vincent’s Mustang.

With Johnny at the wheel of the muscle car, they head into the noir terrain of the California/Nevada desert — with DP Christopher Ross subbing Cape Town, South Africa, locations to striking effect. Less successful is the indulgence in skewed angles and overuse of split screens, the visual tricks more of a distraction than an expression of theme or character.

Riding shotgun, in more ways than one, is Cherry (Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl), a sullen and mostly silent strip-club dancer who’s Johnny’s reluctant companion. The question of whether she’s his girlfriend, his partner in crime, the hooker to his pimp, or all three, is left open to interpretation for much of the film, as are the details surrounding the knife slash across her cheek. But she makes it clear that she views Harper as a naïve kid who’s in over his head, and when they’re alone, she warns him to leave.

Harper’s friend back home (Jared Abrahamson) provides a bit of comic relief as things get more complicated on the road, the chief complication being a CHP officer (Gbenga Akinnagbe) who threatens the Vegas-bound trio’s headway. If the movie’s title refers to anything other than Ulmer’s 1945 flick — which is glimpsed on a TV screen — it’s the requisite side trip to a criminal sociopath (John Lynch, of the BBC series The Fall). His name is Frank, he’s a creditor and abusive mentor of sorts to Johnny, and though he’s an American psycho, he uses the British pronunciation of “cretin.”

The drama grows less stilted as it proceeds, if only because Powley gets to flex some acting muscles that lend a bit of human intrigue. There’s compelling subtlety in the way Cherry sizes up every situation. Weighing the danger, she plays soft and sweet when she has to, and she watches Harper closely after discovering the secret he’s keeping from the mercurial Johnny.

But notwithstanding the performers’ attempts to stir up some grit, the good-looking film is mostly a matter of two-dimensional gestures, like the poster for detective drama Harper in the bedroom of Sheridan’s conflicted character. The references may be clear, but a sense of why any of this matters is nowhere to be found.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures/Magnet Releasing
Production companies: Bankside Films, Head Gear Films, KREO Films, Mandalay Vision
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Bel Powley, Emory Cohen, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Jared Abrahamson, John Lynch, Stephen Moyer, Deon Lotz, Reine Swart
Director-screenwriter: Christopher Smith
Producers: Julie Baines, Jason Newmark, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Executive producers: Hilary Davis, Stephen Kelliher Fenella Ross, Elliot Ross, Cathy Schulman
Director of photography: Christopher Ross
Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Costume designers: Tracey Berg, Ros Berkeley-Hill
Editor: Kristina Hetherington
Music: Toydrum
Casting: Colin Jones

Rated R, 97 minutes