Detour (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Detour (2017)

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Harper's in a jam.  His mother's in a coma, he suspects his stepdad had something to do with the accident making her that way, and a late-night conversation after too many drinks with a dangerous fella leads to a murder plot he'd rather avoid.  But is Harper the good boy he pretends to be, or is something more devious lurking in his mind?  Christopher Smith directs and wrote the screenplay for Detour, and stars Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, and Bel Powley.

Yesterday, when I reviewed Trespass Against Us, I lamented that the screenplay was written with so many off-screen character shifts that it would have done the movie a world of good to stick with one path and run with it.  Now comes Detour, a scarcely seen thriller that grossed less than $2,000, that serves as an answer to my lamentations yesterday.  Detour has a rough opening but once the candy nightmare accelerates with one bad decision after the other it locks in with power and an unusual aesthetic.

Detour's devotion to wide-angle shots is what sets up some of the first rough scenes.  The first shot is of a stripper, who we come to know as Cherry (Bel Powley), working a pole in slow motion while sad acoustic pop plays over the soundtrack.  Not the most auspicious of openings and I could do without seeing another sad stripper scene as long as I draw breath.  But the course correction is immediate and nauseating.  Harper (Tye Sheridan) sits in a lecture hall with what seems the be the lone shaft of light shining on him with his yellow jacket.  The curves of the seats grow disquietingly close on the edge of the screen, providing an unnatural view into Harper's mindset as he ponders how to get rid of his stepdad.

Smith's use of wide frame and sharp colors show Harper as someone looking for trouble while being aware about the mess he's inviting into his life.

The striking use of color follows Harper into a bar room argument with the id to his superego - tattooed tough guy Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen.)  A lot of movies use blurry images combined with slurred speech to signal a character is getting drunk.  Writer / director Christopher Smith uses the colors to paint Harper's mindset with strong reds, yellows, and blues neatly arranged as options for his next action.  I like this a lot, as some folks get sloppy when they're drunk, while other folks get focused and mean.  Harper is more of the latter - all brains with no wisdom, able to see the broad strokes and what path would cause him the least harm, but acting like a smartass with just enough self-awareness that he invites the trouble instead of stumbling into it.

The clearly delineated colors tie in with Smith's remarkable use of split-screen with an excellent twist.  When Harper's confronted with moral options the film splits into different sections showing Harper picking one option over the other.  Then Smith cuts between the follow-up on each in parallel story lines.  This might have been confusing but the music - courtesy of Pablo Clements, James Griffith, and TOYDRUM - drones ahead with unease no matter how calm the surroundings might be in the "better path."  When Smith unveils the twist of the split-screen it's one of the few jaw-dropping moments I've had this year as it shows Harper paints himself as a possible legal crusader while being just as bad as the folks he judges.

Harper's sense of self-identity pulls from a number of movies where it seems "cool" to be the bad guy.  His jacket is missing a scorpion but is otherwise a replica of the gear Ryan Gosling wore in Drive.  Late-night drunk conversations hypothesizing about murdering his stepdad with the lunatic Johnny Ray seem pulled from Strangers on a Train.  Even the noir classic Detour makes an appearance.  These bits of style could have come off as self-indulgent if Harper weren't such a tool.  He's what happens when someone without a sense of their own identity living in a privileged bubble takes what they want from culture without considering the moral implications.  Harper's slumming, he knows it, and that gives him just enough of a push to do the things he always wanted to.

I wouldn't have watched Detour if not for Sheridan in the lead.  He's one of the best young performers working, only 21 this year, and has already stood face-to-face with greats like Matthew McConaughey and Nicholas Cage in Mud and Joe.  Sheridan does a delicate twist on the hardened core if his earlier characters, presenting Harper as someone whose bad ideas root in an idea of manliness half serious and half in jest, letting his words linger just a bit too long to try and gauge the temperature of his predicament.  When the illusion drops and he's left with the consequences he shifts into a panic that would make Cage proud, knowing just how hysterical he needs to be to keep the scene grounded.

Between the second season of Fargo and now Detour, split-screen direction is making a confident if quiet comeback.

The best surprise is discovering Smith.  He's a director who's primarily worked in horror, a genre that continues to go unappreciated, and handles the multiple timelines and picture-in-picture-in-picture storytelling with such confidence I have to watch his other movies.  Kudos as well to Powley as Cherry in what could have been a thankless role that she turns into a feisty sparring partner instead of a shrinking.  Cohen is also excellent as Johnny Ray, never failing at portraying Johnny's menace before needing to shift gears entirely and embrace pathetic fear.

Detour is a grand surprise but also some of the most fun I've had with movies all year.  Fans of Paul Walker may remember a little seen gem of colorful fabulist nightmare fuel called Running ScaredDetour is more restrained than Running Scared as it realizes the hollow core of the characters Harper passively imitates.  But Detour is right up the alley for viewers looking for something a little experimental and a little dangerous.

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Detour (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Christopher Smith.
Starring Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, and Bel Powley.

Posted by Andrew

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