If any one of the ‘90s Quentin Tarantino copycats remade “Sliding Doors,” this neo-noir would be the result, even down to the casting of John Lynch, who starred in the 1998 film. Filled with would-be-witty dialogue, “Detour” takes a Choose Your Own Adventure approach to its twist-filled narrative about a college student whose attempts for revenge go very wrong. Director Christopher Smith employs split screen to show what happens when his hero makes a decision and flips back in time when it wants to show the audience just how little they know.
“Detour” isn’t just notable for its structure and style, but for the casting of three promising young actors, even if it doesn’t put them all to good use. This ‘90s throwback begins with a shot of Bel Powley ringing around a stripper pole to Goldfrapp’s “Stranger.” The camera is static, and Powley — one of last year’s most celebrated new stars for her role in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” — simply twirls in slow-motion in her underwear. This sets the stage for the rest of her role in “Detour,” where all the award-winning actress gets to do is look pouty, get hit in the face and told to “fuck off.” Tye Sheridan stars as her savior, though he’s somehow given only slightly more to do on the acting front, given that most of his time on screen is spent thinking about which route to take. Only Emory Cohen gets to have fun here, trading in the romantic charmer of “Brooklyn” for a foul-mouthed, cruel criminal who reveals a weakness for Powley’s stripper. His character, Johnny Ray, is the type of guy who snorts coke with a $50 bill and says stuff like, “Where’s the shithole in this shithole?” and “Don’t regret the things you do, just the things you don’t.”
The latter statement plays into both the theme and form of “Detour,” and allows writer/director Smith to employ a narrative that turns and loops back on itself. After the strip club interlude, we begin the movie with Hunter (Sheridan) in a classroom, listening to his professor advise, “Know the rule of law and you can bend it.” Even though Hunter starts the story with the best of intentions, by its ending, he doesn’t bend the law so much as snap it and stomp on the pieces. His motivation for his actions lie in an event that happened before the film started: his mother and stepfather Vincent (Stephen Moyer) were in a car accident that left his mom in a coma. Hunter blames his stepdad and accuses him of having an affair in Vegas, while his mother is in the hospital on life support. When he meets bad boy Johnny Ray at a bar, he drunkenly wonders aloud how much money it would cost to exact vengeance on Vincent. The next morning, Hunter wakes up in a haze and finds Johnny and stripper Cherry (Powley) at his front door, ready to go on a road trip and kill Vincent. From there, each path Hunter chooses is shown to the audience, employing a split screen to show choices A and B simultaneously. Hunter shutting the door on Johnny and Cherry leads his day in one direction, while agreeing to join them on a trip to Vegas takes him in another. We’re supposed to believe that the direction of Hunter’s life is guided by the informed choices he makes, but his actions seem less like decisions and more like he’s being swept along by those around him. There are some surprises when it’s revealed that the viewer doesn’t know everything they think they do, adding an additional layer to the sometimes convoluted structure and the sometimes illogical story therein.
The alternate timeline gimmick is what makes “Detour” interesting, but its inventive approach to narrative doesn’t save it from being a mess otherwise. The script tries far too hard to be smart, updating the hardboiled dialogue of classic noir films but lacking the wit. Meanwhile, the twists in the finale feel hollow and would resonate more deeply if the audience were more invested in either the characters or where they’re going. However, it does take full advantage of its setting in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the desert in between, with the cinematography from Christopher Ross making the most of the film’s photogenic locations.
There’s something fresh in “Detour,” but it’s buried underneath a largely unremarkable movie. With its split screen schtick, “Detour” should have cult appeal for those who aren’t bothered by the larger issues of character, dialogue and story. Those who discover it and find themselves riding its dark wavelength may find enjoyment in rewatching the film to fully explore the various storytelling paths, though multiple viewings may prove that not everything in its structure holds together. [C-]