“Let me ask you something,” Emory Cohen says to Tye Sheridan about thirteen minutes into Christopher Smith’s new film, Detour. “If you could stop time, cut yourself in half, and one side, he goes off, he kills this pussy hound. The other side, he stays at home. Don’t know nothing about it. When it’s over, the two sides, they don’t speak, shit, they don’t know what the other one’s done. You live your life, clean hands. Would you do it?”
Cohen’s character is Johnny, a keyed-up tough guy with a penchant for solving problems with either drinks or violence. Sheridan’s character is Harper, a rich college kid who studies criminal law and has a major beef with his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), whom he suspects of having an affair as his mother lies comatose in the hospital. Harper and Johnny are two people of such different stripes that you’d never expect their paths to cross, but Harper, who likes to cure his woes with alcohol, bumps into Johnny at a bar by chance, buys himself out of a fight with a bottle of scotch, and after drinking too much tells Johnny his darkest secrets, admitting that he’d like to see Vincent’s feather’s ruffled for two-timing his mom while she lies dying in a hospital bed.
It’s in their inebriated and ill-advised banter that Detour finds its hook: Johnny asks the above question, and the screen splits into two frames, each containing the same shot of Harper. In one frame, Harper replies to Johnny’s question in the affirmative. In the other frame, he says nothing, and the film performs a split from there, tracking both Harpers’ lives after their fateful conversation with Johnny. Detour is a film made up not of split screens but split narratives. We at first assume that Smith has chosen this device to paint the divide between the Harper who says “yes” to Johnny and the Harper who says nothing at all, to show us how a single word can irrevocably alter our lives and put us on dark paths, but Detour surprises us by instead suggesting that whether you say “yes” or “no,” you might still be an awful person.
In one thread, Harper hits the road with Johnny and Cherry (Bel Powley), Johnny’s prostitute girlfriend, and and heads to Las Vegas, where he intends to intercept and kill Vincent, who is ostensibly flying to Sin City for a business trip but in truth is just shacking up with his mistress, whom Harper makes a point of referring to as a whore. (It should probably be made clear that Detour doesn’t have a ton of respect for women.) In the other thread, Harper goes home from the bar, where he gets into an altercation with Vincent and winds up with decidedly unclean hands. The moment comes as a less of a shock than you might anticipate, and is less a spoiler than the only logical direction that the film’s secondary arc can head.
What kind of film would Detour really be if Harper just went back to his place after his night out with Johnny, took a nap, and simply went on existing? Smith has more misanthropic goals in mind than that. There’s very little humanity here, at least not enough to redeem it. (If you’re looking for compassion, you’re going to have to wait until the bitter end to find it.) We’re almost in Strangers on a Train territory, but Smith infuses any Hitchcockian trappings with a healthy dose of harsh cynicism. Maybe if you could commit a crime and get away with it, you would, but then again, maybe if you just stayed at home you’d commit a crime anyway, and maybe you’d also get away with it. This is the kind of moral conundrum Smith’s films are known for, whether the time loop nightmare of Triangle or the medieval witch hunting of Black Death, movies where good and bad exist on an unstable spectrum, and people who appear pure of heart are more corrupt than we realize at a glance.
It’s unfortunate that Detour’s interrogation of toxic masculinity and its tricky plotting are both waylaid by Smith’s insistence on his own references. Edgar G. Ulmer made a film noir in 1945 called Detour, too, and for reasons that aren’t readily apparent, Smith uses that picture as background noise in his own: The Harper we see in the film’s secondary arc sits down to watch the Ulmer movie at home while the Harper we see in the film’s primary arc stares wide eyed at Cherry, Tom Neal’s voice over description of Ann Savage echoing over the shot. Ulmer’s film is about a hapless schlub trying to hitchhike from Reno to California to marry his girlfriend. Smith’s film is about a seemingly hapless schlub who turns out to be a manipulative and amoral asshole who’s quite willing to use and discard people to see his personal aims achieved.
If Ulmer’s classic informs Smith’s efforts at all, it’s impossible to tell at a glance, but the latter’s nod to the former is obvious to the point of grating. Jarring as the allusion may be, the ending Smith arrives at is far worse, a slice of respite that feels equally mean-spirited and unearned. (Unearned for Harper, anyways. Cherry doesn’t earn a reprieve, either, but boy does she deserve it regardless.) “No law or ordinance is mightier than understanding,” Harper’s professor tells his class as Detour begins. “Know the rule of law, and you can bend it.” Smith ignores his own advice and snaps the rule of law clean in half. The film’s gimmick is well-orchestrated and engaging, but it’s weighed down by too many contrivances and too much unnecessary pastiche.
Director: Christopher Smith
Writer: Christopher Smith
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley, Stephen Moyer, John Lynch
Release Date: January 20, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.