“Don’t regret the things you do, just the things you don’t.”
That mantra seems a good rule for a road trip. But as Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen) discovers in Detour, it’s a more complicated one to live by, at once traditional and nonsensical. Christopher Smith’s California noir is an assuredly messy movie. It’s full of plot shortcuts, unstable alternate realities, kinks in the visual style, and needless bouts of hyper-masculinity. Yet even when it’s floundering, even when it ultimately bails on the promises it makes early on, Detour convinces you it was never trying to be too clever. It doesn’t regret what it did to arrive where it does. Like Johnny Ray, the film is compelling enough to forgive a few failures. What’s left over, it will just try to outrun.
In just over 90 minutes, Detour tries a lot and dwells on little, with parallel plot lines sometimes rendered in literal split screens. Los Angeles law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) despises his philandering stepdad Vincent (Stephen Moyer), whom he believes may be responsible for putting his mother in a coma. Fatigued and numbed by looking after her, Harper goes out drinking alone. He’s caught staring across the bar at Johnny, a hillbilly raconteur with a cut-off checkered shirt, a New York accent, and Cherry (Bel Powley), a troubling combination of his lover, captive, and business partner. One drink leads to another and Harper enlists Johnny to teach the stepfather a violent lesson.
The next morning, when Johnny and Cherry show up at Harper’s door (slouching in their sunglasses like Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers), the narrative appears to fork. In one version, Harper joins them in a vintage Mustang and speeds to Las Vegas to carry out the vengeful act. In the other, he stays home to nurse his hangover and confront Vincent.
Once the bifurcated journeys are in motion, the director lets his hair down. Smith cross-edits audio from the 1945 film noir called Detour into a scene where Harper is ogling Cherry, while, in the other reality, he’s watching the original movie. Later, Smith stages a slow-motion brawl in an uncut wide shot. Then, he tries on some Tarantino-esque POV swagger and puts the camera behind a walking waitress, following her out a diner door toward the approaching Harper, Cherry, and Johnny Ray. None of these visual stylings is breathtaking on its own, and neither do they quite equal the coherent tonal approach you’d expect from a dusty noir. Rather, they make this whole incident surreal for Harper, like something he’s seen only in old genre films. You can imagine Smith’s camera as Harper watching himself make life-altering choices he can’t fully comprehend.
Harper, the film underlines, is a conventionally lonely and compromised anti-hero (his bedroom wall features a poster from the 1966 Paul Newman film, Harper). His fellow travelers are familiar types too, but their uniforms are distinct and revealing. Johnny Ray, red around the eyes and with a skull tattoo bulls-eyeing his Adam’s apple, holds his companions hostage with his physical presence. Harper is clad throughout in a striking yellow jacket to symbolize his fear. And Cherry, with a cut from cheekbone to chin and wide rings of eye shadow, seems both in danger and somehow in charge.
The movie is fascinated by these archetypal outlaws and their resignation to their fates. But perhaps not in the usual cinematic ways. No part of their journey thrills them, nor is it a pre-destined point in the arc of epic crime stories. No, their lives are dismal and aimless, and they’re crammed into the Mustang trying to escape that reality — drifting, but at high speeds. Their lack of hope frees them (and the movie) to do anything. Granted, that’s not always for the best. In initially juxtaposing his two hypotheticals, Smith seems to have instituted the one rule the movie will have to follow, no matter how unsettling or intimidating it becomes. But the way he eventually marries his pair of plots is sudden, confusing and, once you mull it over, sloppy. The only thing that keeps this from ruining the movie is how fast it happens. By this point, blowing up the structural premise happens more with a quick, passing shrug than a dramatic unveiling.
Alongside its creativity, Detour can still be scuzzy and tasteless: there’s a cut to porn that’s wholly unnecessary; Cohen’s character is a little more despicable than the film thinks he is, and Cherry is exploited (or at least threatened) by a criminal underworld that trades in sex slavery. Regrettably, the film’s interest in her is never precise enough to make her constant peril feel earned. Were it not for Powley’s range and remarkable ability to convey fear and disgust, she would be an entirely stock femme fatale.
Despite such tropes, it’s commendable that Smith prefers the weird detail to the authenticity play. Rather than fixate on darkness, he spends time on the textures of a malt shop on the edge of nowhere, or with Harper’s school friend who turned his hair white by tripping on acid, or with a crime boss who’s furious he can’t break a whiskey glass during a temper tantrum. If Detour would have been flawed and self-important it’d be unforgivable, but in the end, Smith thankfully shows a lot of verve and not much solemnity. So he burned some rubber and plowed through some traffic signs. Big deal.