by Hope Madden
Brit filmmaker Christopher Smith has some tricks up his sleeve.
The director/sometimes writer is willing to try most anything in the genre – from medical horror (2004’s Creep) to period horror (2010’s Black Death) to brilliant, blistering and woefully underseen horror comedy (2006’s Severance).
But he takes a harder left than usual with his latest, Detour – a noir-esque road picture with revenge on its mind.
Well-cast and enjoyably pulpy, the film follows Harper (Tye Sheridan) – law student and all around good kid – as he spins a dangerous web. He blames his stepdad (Stephen Moyer) for his mother’s coma, backing himself into a deal with local no-goodnicks Johnny Ray and Cherry (Emory Cohen and Bel Powley, respectively).
Twice the film winks toward the great Paul Newman neo-noir Harper as well as Strangers on a Train, then pulls more blatantly from Edgar Ulmer’s 1945 noir Detour. But Smith’s Detour feels more like style over substance than it does hard boiled or twisty.
Sheridan cuts a believably innocent figure, and Harper’s drunken ramblings are a hoot. Cohen – such a peach in last year’s Brooklyn – finely articulates the hot-headed, coked-out but ultimately wounded Johnny, while Powley manages to bring more than just a rosy pout to her under-developed but intriguing character.
Detour also litters the dusty road trip from Cali to Vegas with some weirdly compelling characters, chief among them Frank (John Lynch – so creepy!).
But Smith just does better when he’s working with another writer.
At a pivotal moment in Harper’s story, Smith brings in the split screen, drawing attention to a conversation – a little anecdote about conscience – Harper and Johnny Ray shared over loads of liquor the evening before.
Here’s where Smith’s directing outshines his writing.
With the split screen comes the mystery and the provocative notion that Smith is building then rebuilding the story. But the story can’t keep up, and in the end the split screen is little more than a gimmick – a great looking one, but a gimmick nonetheless.
Early clues are too tidy, later choices far sloppier, the resolution neither cynical nor satisfying enough to tie things up.
That’s not to say Detour is a total miss, just that it doesn’t live up to its potential.