We’ve all been there. A family member is deathly ill, an outsider is probably to blame, and local criminal has the solution if you have the cash. But what happens when you wake up the next morning with a hangover and the realization that maybe hiring a hit man wasn’t the wisest decision?
Harper (Tye Sheridan) is a law student distracted by a mom in intensive care. She fell into a coma under questionable circumstances — questionable to Harper anyway — and he strongly suspects her boyfriend Vincent (Stephen Moyer) is responsible. A run-in with his stepdad sends Harper out to a local bar where he crosses paths with a thug named Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen) and his lady friend Cherry (Bel Powley). Drinks are consumed, plans are made, and the next morning when Johnny comes calling Harper realizes what he’s done. The trio are going to follow Vincent to his “business” meeting in Las Vegas and kill him. Things don’t quite work out so simply for any of them.
Writer/director Christopher Smith is no stranger to twisty plots — see his sharply-written Triangle — and he pairs that shifty agenda with a desert noir in Detour. Familiar genre character types are thrust together with ever-changing motivations and a narrative that teases a Sliding Doors-meets-murder aesthetic.
A temporary slide into a split-screen narrative introduces alternative possibilities that seem designed to up the thrills and unpredictability, and it works for a little bit at least as we’re forced to reevaluate certain characters’ guilt. Smith’s script doesn’t keep a tight enough grip on it though tipping his hand too early and deflating some of the effect. Similarly, some of the film’s surprises are only a shock because of the script’s structure as opposed to more carefully constructed narrative turns.
The biggest issue holding the film back though exists in the casting of the leads. Sheridan is fine as he brings a bewildered innocence to a young man in way over his head, but both Cohen and Powley feel somewhat out of place. Cohen, so terrific in last year’s Brooklyn, can’t quite fill the shoes of an unpredictably violent and threatening criminal. The promise of danger is never felt in his presence or performance even if the dialogue is trying to tell us otherwise. Powley gave a tremendous turn recently in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but as with Cohen’s not quite there heavy her portrayal of a dive-bar stripper lacks weight. The character traits are there, but they rarely feel convincing as instead she too frequently feels lost in her surroundings.
It’s not uncommon for films to feature an unimportant character tossing off some equally irrelevant idea or quote only to see it blossom into blatant foreshadowing. Smith does something similar here a bit too obviously as they’re the only words we hear at the beginning from one of Harper’s law professors. It by no means kills the suspense, but it leaves viewers a little less curious and a little more certain.
Despite these issues the film remains an engaging road trip that requires audiences pay attention along the way. For every misstep in the mystery there’s something of value in the cinematography as much of the action unfolds beneath a desert sun. For each drop in the performances there’s a fun nod to genre films of the past featuring generally good people pushed into a corner.
Detour is a fun-enough diversion that takes some wrong turns along the way but still brings you to a satisfying enough end.
The Upside: Attractive desert photography; some fun story turns
The Downside: Two unconvincing lead performances; some obvious story turns