A confident transition from British shores to the bright Las Vegas lights, writer-director Christopher Smith’s all-American Detour is a visually slick – if somewhat comfortable – postmodern noir. Charged by three youthful performances, and powered by enjoyably rugged grit, this micro-budget thriller isn’t without problems, but certainly worth a look nonetheless.
Tye Sheridan stars as Harper, a bookish Los Angeles law student, who has deep suspicions that his scheming stepfather Vincent (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer) is responsible for the devastating car accident which left his mother comatose. Simmering with rage and bourbon, he drunkenly enters a pact with Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), a mood-swinging thug, who agrees to kill Vincent for the measly price of $20,000. With Bel Powley’s stripping muse Cherry in tow, the trio set off through the Nevada desert to get the dirty job done.
Smith is no stranger to penning a layered screenplay – just look at 2009’s Triangle for a fine example – and whilst his latest isn’t perhaps as subtle or textured, Detour still plays with narrative conventions in a compelling manner. The film straddles two core paths for the central character; one in which the threesome reluctantly follow through with the plan, and another where Harper outright refuses to leave his home, which leads to brutal consequences, too. Whilst Smith’s story is often guilty of leaning on the sturdy frameworks of genre, it’s most admirable to see a correlation between conflict and conscience.
The dialogue is predominately solid, and spat with angsty venom by those involved, but a number of exchanges feel tone-deaf. It’s a common occurrence in cinema of this nature really, as elder creatives are attempting to underpin ever-changing youth cultures and dialect. Sometimes the bile-laden quarrelling hits the nail right on its head. Other times, the acidity lacks potency, and sadly those are the ones you’ll recall most vividly.
Lensed by Christopher Ross, the pacy 97 minutes benefit from some earthy cinematography, particularly during the highway drive sequences. The atmosphere is as thick with sand and dust as the environments, whilst stark contrast arrives with the homely suburban interior shots; emphasising the magnitude of Harper’s character alteration. Prior to meeting Johnny Ray, we’re led to believe he’d struggle to squish an insect, and now he’s en route to fulfil a murder ploy. Additional shots of interest come in the final act when we reach Vegas. The neon lights and candy-coloured casinos are a welcomed change from the shimmering haze of that sun.
Collectively the performances are impressive, with Sheridan continuing to prove himself as a commanding young presence. Harper has significantly more complexity than his counterparts, and the actor conveys the mismatched shades of morality with enough emotion for you to be invested, but not so much that it weakens his identity. Wide-eyed and shoulders slumped, he is a ordinary fish-out-of-water, albeit one tangled in an extraordinary situation. Both Cohen and Powley deliver good work considering the lack of definition Johnny Ray and Cherry are blessed with, and their heated relationship has just enough tricks up its sleeve to engage.
In the battle between style and substance, which prevails in Smith’s film? Well, style in all honesty, but the substance is certainly tender enough to chew. Detour treads familiar ground, and serves up the occasional clunker, but with its sharply observed visuals, quick-fire pacing, and entertainingly energetic cast, this grimy road movie offers audiences a commute which is far from a chore.
Detour opens in select UK cinemas on Friday, 26th May.