There are plenty of reasons why someone may not take to Detour, the feature film debut from writer/director Christopher Smith. It’s storytelling methods may confuse many audience members, and the story it tells is rather thin when you try to examine it. Still, Detour’s an adventurous idea, and it’s one well worth your time.
As twisted as the film’s story is, its basics are easy enough. We follow Harper (Tye Sheridan), a young law student who’s mother is dying. Harper blames his stepfather, who seems fairly uninterested in his mother’s sickness. Harper gets very drunk after getting some bad news about his mom, and he meets Johnny (Emory Cohen), an obvious wild card. Harper enlists Johnny to help him kill his step-dad, who’s on a business trip in Las Vegas.
The trick with Detour is that much of it’s fun comes from structure. The film has a gimmick, to be sure, or if you prefer, a decidedly unusual form. To say much more would harm the experience of the film, one which works a little bit like a less-challenging Memento.
After that gimmick exits the equation, there’s really very little to talk about. The characters are disappointingly thin. The best of the bunch is Cherry (Bel Powley), a stripper who accompanies the men on their journey. Powley is just naturally charismatic, a figure who’s every gesture feels important. Powley can’t help but turn Cherry into a character; she’s too talented to do anything else.
Cohen is charismatic enough, playing mostly on type as a lug with a heart. He’s a lumbering presence, but he’s not given a ton to do. Sheridan brings a welcome sense of panic to his role, but the performance falls flat. There’s too much narrative drive in this film to stop for character beats, and, with the occasional exception of Powley, the actors have very little to do.
Sylistically, Detour has a lot going for it. It’s confident, for sure. It believes in the conceit it forms around and uses that conceit to play with viewer expectations. Christopher Smith has an unshakable determination to tell the story his way, and I was along for the ride from the word go. The plot is not what’s key here, but its telling. This is a familiar story, told in a new way, and Smith makes that very clear at an early stage.
It’s a wild ride while you’re on it, but Detour loses ground as soon as it begins to reach for any level of meaning. This is a movie about movement, about the sheer momentum that can come from telling a story that keeps audiences guessing. What it can’t do is stop, and it’s attempt to turn the story and the uniqueness of its telling into something profound is the moment it becomes far less enjoyable.
Still, it’s a fun trip while it lasts. The best advice I can give any viewers of Detour is simple. Take the film at its title. This is a side-journey, nothing of great importance but a scenic route nonetheless. It’s fun, even if it doesn’t necessarily give you anything essential.