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Detour | Review

Byway Bric-a-Brac: Smith Disappoints with Undistinguished Neo-noir

Christopher Smith DetourIf the title sounds familiar, it’s because British director Christopher Smith is borrowing from the moniker from Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 classic B-noir Detour, which starred an impressively vicious (and aptly named) Ann Savage as one of film noir’s most violent femme fatales. Smith attempts to pay homage by the showing a clip of the film in the background, but the direct inclusion of this and several other obvious nods to classics from the annals of American genre cinema only set us up for comparative disappoint with a narrative only serving a wan YA version of the type of grit one would expect in an R rated film from the director of 2006’s Severance. Still, its trio of central performers, each having proven themselves to be talented performers throughout the past several years in a variety of indie vehicles, are watchable enough to keep an audience hanging until the credits roll, even when nothing outside of the unexpected ends up happening.

Law school student Harper (Tye Sheridan) is having a rough time, his mother currently in a coma following a car accident he believes was caused by his adulterous stepfather Vincent (Stephen Moyer). Drowning his sorrows at a dive bar, Harper has a chance encounter with roughneck Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), who takes a shine to the drunken and obviously intelligent Harper, who pours out his woes about the harm he wishes would befall Vincent. The two hatch a fantastical plot, with Harper offering to pay $250,000 for such services. The next morning, a hung over Harper finds Johnny Ray at his front door with a sketchy young woman, Cherry (Bel Powley), ready to drive to Las Vegas to take care of Vincent, not allowing Harper to back out of the situation despite the young man’s protestations, claiming the night nefore was meant to be merely a drunken joke. Johnny Ray, however, needs the money and won’t take no for an answer.

Since his 2004 Franka Potente headlined creature feature Creep, Smith has been a dependable source for enjoyably offbeat genre films, most notably for the sardonic administrative retreat/serial killer comedy Severance, but also for his less celebrated works, usually which feature strong performances from noted actresses, like 2009’s Triangle with Melissa George, and his 2010 bubonic plague film Black Death with Carice Van Houten and Sean Bean. It’s obvious Smith was reaching for a certain heightened tone, as evidenced not only by the title but Sheridan’s character, named for the 1966 Paul Newman action film Harper, the poster looming omnipotently in the young man’s bedroom. References to Ken Kesey’s classic text One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which Harper reads to his comatose mother, also crop up several times, although these merely drop like distracting references, reminding us of better films and more persuasive narratives.

Emory Cohen once again appears as a familiar, hard-edged personality, the Brooklyn actor adopting a similar persona to his The Place Beyond the Pine troubled youth, whose rebelliousness is merely a front to hide his real position on the criminal totem pole. Once dispatched by a somewhat unenthralling narrative curveball courtesy of John Lynch’s criminal kingpin Frank, we’re left with Sheridan’s one-note sense of naiveté and an increasingly interesting Bel Powley, who manages a 180 from her celebrated Diary of a Teenage Girl role as an increasingly savage woman intent on survival. Though her strange relationship with Johnny Ray is left intriguingly ambiguous, Detour could have been a stronger film had Powley been the center point, which could have made the film less a pale of echo of Strangers on a Train and more a catty update on Gun Crazy. Unfortunately, Smith’s characters aren’t very kill crazy, thrill crazy, or any kind of crazy, and instead lives up to its title in a more literal sense, suggesting, like most unplanned excursions on an alternate routes, it is merely a waste of time.

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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