The critical success of 2010’s Buried didn’t exactly cause a wave of claustrophobic copycats, but a few similarly structured films found their way into production in the past few years. Wrecked saw Adrien Brody trapped in his car after an accident, and Stephen Dorff was stuffed in a trunk (hurray!) for Brake. All three films, for better or worse, had storylines “outside” the single location (car, coffin) that offered additional narrative momentum beyond a simple survival story.
Director/co-writer William Dickerson‘s feature debut, Detour, forgoes that additional layer to focus almost exclusively on one man trapped in a confined space and desperate to escape. Is that enough to keep viewers’ attention for ninety minutes? Yes. And no. And yes.
Jackson (Neil Hopkins) awakens at the wheel of his car with the engine stalled and the airbag deployed. It’s pitch black outside his windows, but what he mistakes at first for nightfall is in fact dirt. His drive to work was apparently interrupted by a mudslide that’s left him and his car buried an unknown depth beneath the surface. As the hours tick by his presumptions that rescue is imminent prove false, and he’s forced into survival mode. A career in advertising hasn’t exactly prepared him for this, but if he can talk himself into believing he’s going to live he might just have a chance.
Dickerson and co-writer Dwight Moody have kept their story simple, but that simplicity comes with a challenge of its own. Viewers need to be invested in Jackson’s predicament to the point where they’re willing to watch what amounts to a one-man show for nearly ninety minutes. It’s easy to get bored by the necessary repetition found in a setup like this, but the script finds more than a few ways to keep things moving.
Jackson has his smartphone with him, but while the film’s opening frames threaten this as another found footage endeavor Dickerson wisely opts out of that format. The phone is still used but only to watch videos of his girlfriend Laurie (Brea Grant) when he needs a pick-me-up or to record messages to her when he feels like giving up completely.
Those videos of happier times are one of the ways the action takes a break from the confines of the car to move elsewhere. Jackson also has a few (too many) dreams that when mixed together with memories reveal a man focused on career and neglectful of the life he could be improving with Laurie. As he struggles to survive he moves through various stages including anger, fear, negotiation and acceptance. He promises to be a better man or to find God, whatever it takes he’ll do, but the film makes it clear that the only relevant element in his pleas is that he has to “do” something.
Perhaps unavoidably, there are still the expected bits of frustrating stupidity on Jackson’s part (close the goddamn sunroof!), but they’re surprisingly few and far between. Instead his occasional MacGyver-like efforts to get air and try to reach the surface are impressively creative and help keep viewer interest peaked. His emotional efforts aren’t quite as successful though, but the blame for that falls less on Hopkins’ performance than it does on the pacing and script. The lesser elements of his personality, the areas in need of improvement, are a bit too obvious and presented rather directly at times. They’re still effective, but the character would have benefited from more depth.
Detour suffers a bit from its lack of additional layers similar to the ones in the three films mentioned above, but while it’s absent a mystery, twist ending or voice on the other end of the phone it finds enough to deal with inside the car and inside Jackson’s mind. Love and the will to live can be more powerful than any GPS, and while it may seem like they’re bringing you out of your way they may also be your best bet for getting back home.
The Upside: Hopkins does fine work with limited resources; creative use of time; ending
The Downside: Some frustrations; over reliance on dreams; lead character isn’t as fully developed as he could be
On the Side: Detour was actually filmed a few months before the release of Buried.