British writer-director Christopher Smith knows his noir. He knows that when you watch his film, you will also be reminded of other movies when you see: a cop order the (anti)hero to open the trunk of his car: a hooker who is frantically packing to get out of Vegas before her pimp kills her, when there’s a knock at the door; a neighbor trimming hedges hears an argument next door and calls out, “Is everything all right?”; a man with a knife in his side falls into the swimming pool.
Well, you get the idea. He wants you to be reminded of those movies – even if you can’t remember their names – because the excitement is intensified when those memories whisper inside you as you relive them, again, in the dark. He even knows that the title of his film will somehow invoke danger and peril, even if you never heard of the classic noir whose only resemblance to his film is its title.
He’s also eager to set himself apart by nudging the genre into new territory. Based on this film, and his 2009 Triangle, Smith likes combining chills with sunshine. A lot of grisly, spooky stuff happens by a sunlit swimming pool and in the daytime glare of the highway.
It opens with Harper, a law student whose parents were divorced, visiting his comatose mother in the hospital. Along with his despair, he is seething with rage because he believes that his stepfather, Vincent, caused the car accident that injured her. Later, he goes to a bar to relax and meets Johnny, a young thuggish type. He drinks too much, and confides his wish that Vincent get hurt himself so he can suffer for what he did to his mother. He tells Johnny that Vincent is going to Las Vegas, and it would be perfect for him to have his “accident” there. Johnny, who needs money fast – for a reason we discover later – seizes on this. He can see that Harper is upper middle class, and would have access to money whenever he needs it. He shows up at Harper’s house the next morning, along with his girlfriend, Cherry, and bullies Harper into going with him to Las Vegas, where he will kill Vincent, after Harper points him out. And for granting Harper’s wish, he expects to be paid $20,000.
The most original part of the screenplay is the way Smith spaces out the exposition in short, choppy flashbacks showing what happened after Harper came home that night, including a fateful confrontation with Vincent. Once Harper’s secret is revealed to the audience, and to Cherry, who discovers it on the highway, the trip to Vegas plot line is inverted. The suspense becomes linked to whether the homicidal Johnny will discover it too, and if Harper and Cherry can escape him.
Another nice touch that Smith is fond of is the quick shot of a familiar trope for melodramas, but then upending our expectations. Here are two examples: a knife flying through the air must, of course, end up in a person, right? Or when we see Cherry holding a gun, and a man walking menacingly towards her, we know someone’s going to get shot with it, right? But wait, Smith says slyly, I’ll show you how we get to the expected outcome, but not in the way you think.
Detour is a wild, trippy ride, and the ending fully satisfies the basics of the genre. There are implausibilities along the way, including the reasons why a crazed, violent drug lord (a character way overused since Alfred Molina’s definitive turn in Boogie Nights) wants to kill Johnny, but they are minor. Tye Sheridan summons the fresh, eagerness of the Tom Cruise of Risky Business, but the standout here is Bel Powley. With huge eyes right out of a Les Miz poster, she imparts a sweetness to Cherry that co-exists with a chilling self-possession. Somehow you never doubt that, whatever the odds, this girl will be the undoing of any man who underestimates her.
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