Much like Rian Johnson’s Brick, Christopher Smith’s Detour aims for gritty neo-noir with a fairly young cast. Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen and Bel Powley are extremely talented up-and-comers, but the story itself lacks the inventiveness of Johnson’s hit. Smith, in large part, forges his narrative around homage and genre cliché. To begin with, he claims the title of Edgar G. Ulmer’s noir classic (and has his protagonist briefly watch the movie in one scene). But the bulk of Detour unfolds like a patchwork quilt of noir, with a hefty dose of Quentin Tarantino’s take on the genre circa True Romance. The resulting film is intriguing but hollow, its characters and plot points seemingly plucked from a catalog of noir standbys.

The main draw of Detour is its first act split-screen gimmick. Harper (Sheridan) is a clean-cut law student with a fraught personal life, since his mother is currently in a coma and he suspects his stepfather (Stephen Moyer) of being responsible for the car accident (that he conveniently walked away from). One night while drinking at a bar, Harper’s eavesdropping catches the attention of Johnny (Cohen), a generic thug who runs a strip club and is very interested in Harper’s hypotheticaldiscussion of how much he would pay for someone to teach his stepfather a lesson when he goes to Las Vegas to see his stripper girlfriend instead of visiting his comatose wife in the hospital. The next morning when Johnny and his “girl” Cherry show up at Harper’s house, a mirror split-screen strips the moment of all subtlety by illustrating Harper’s choice with a bifurcated narrative, with one Harper agreeing to drive to Vegas in his stepfather’s Mustang and the other staying home and confronting the man himself.

How those two narratives reconcile within the latter two acts becomes more intriguing than the actual events that unfold. In that sense, Detour is a film that relies on the novelty of its narrative structure more than anything else. The trouble is, this parallel narrative isn’t novel. Detourisn’t Sliding Doors, but they share a central device. When Smith’s film attempts to flesh out its murder-for-hire story, it doesn’t fall flat, but it sorely lacks believability.

Sheridan and his innocent looks work perfectly for the overwhelmed Harper, completely out of his depth in both narrative strains but especially in Johnny’s seedy world. (The Harper poster in his room is a nice nod, but Sheridan isn’t as astute as Newman.) But Cohen as a pimp/drug dealer requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. That is in large part due to Smith’s shell of a character. Johnny seems like a hardened criminal, but as the film progresses, he has deeply humanizing moments, the bulk of which undermine his tough guy persona. A detour trip to see Frank (John Lynch), a drug lord who will forgive Johnny’s debts in exchange for Cherry, shows just how little clout Johnny has. So, is this hit job a means to becoming a big time criminal? It’s an interesting discussion, and one that Smith doesn’t explore.

Cherry, for her part, is little more than a woman who’s been exchanged, bartered and whored out for other’s profit. Smith alludes to a deeper connection between Cherry and Johnny, beyond the ambiguous stripper/prostitute and pimp relationship. And then never elaborates. Given the film’s twist ending, Smith likely thought he was writing a redemptive arc, or at the least giving her character a hopeful future. But Cherry lacks the self-determination of even the lesser femme fatales. Her character is hardly as feminist as her 1940s noir equivalent.

But that fits with Detour as a whole; it’s a noir homage that operates on hollow visual references and the vaguest of concepts about how modern criminals operate. Smith no more differentiates between a victim and a femme fatale as he does a pointed reference and a plot. The film rams home its dualistic imagery but fails to go beyond the surface. Like Cherry, the bulk of Detour is merely a means to an end – the end being the final twist in Smith’s narrative structure. It’s fitting, in a sense, that the film has such a young cast of characters. They seem to be naively content to mimic how they thinkcriminals handle hit jobs and college students navigate seedy underworlds. It’s not unlike how Smith crafted this noir throwback.

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