If anyone has been waiting for a Strangers on a Train retake, here it is. Writer-director Christopher Smith takes audiences on a twisted ride in his latest film Detour, combining elements of the crime thriller, film noir, and comedy to present something wholly unique for some cross-genre fun. A creative non-linear narrative structure along with colorful, layered, and intense performances from his three stars Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, and Bel Powley, makes Smith’s film an entertaining and immersive spectacle.
Detour follows Tye Sheridan as Harper, a young law student reeling from his mother’s recent car crash, coma, and impending death – the kicker is he thinks his stepfather (Stephen Moyer) was in on it, that he has been cheating on his mother, and is looking for a payday and a way out. A chance meeting with a hard grifter type named Vincent (Emory Cohen) leads Harper to contemplate hiring him as a hitman to kill his stepfather. From that meeting, Harper’s fate splits off into Sliding Doors-esque scenarios that play out the varying consequences of his decisions. The first split reveals his murder plot with Vincent and his stripper companion Cherry (Bel Powley), and the second reveals what happens when Harper decides to back out of the deal. Each plot diversion brings with it a new twist and keeps the audience on their toes from start to finish.
Although he has a surprise around every corner, Smith’s respect for the audience’s intelligence is clear and will have viewers appreciating, rather than possibly resenting, the filmmakers twists and turns. Smith builds his story from a complex and multi-layered narrative structure. It is from this that he cleverly brings in elements of film noir. From the twisted story and character arcs, neither the omniscient perspective nor the protagonist or supporting characters are ever fully trustworthy. It makes for a deep well of intrigue and ample opportunity for nuanced acting. Regardless of the several re-directions from Smith, his characters’ motivations always remain the same, and it is this that provides a clear and organizational through-line for the film.
The timing of this film sees Sheridan right as he is making the transition to adult movie star. Now at 20-years-old, the former child actor’s indie cred is being put to the test before he gears up for stardom (with his next role as the lead in Spielberg’s Ready Player One). In Detour, Sheridan flexes his maturity, transitioning from one tone to another and never allowing the audience to get a complete read on Harper. At one moment he seems young, inexperienced, and unhinged, while on another he appears calm, collected, confident, and fox-like. He moves between these personas as if both encompass one character and reveals from scene to scene just how much the audience has underestimated Harper.
Detour also showcases Emory Cohen’s remarkable gift for character-acting. Going from something like Brooklyn to this highlights his immense range and cascading ability. Cohen approaches Vincent from an empathetic human core, but simultaneously nails down his gritty and devil-like allegorical character. Just like Harper, Vincent cannot be pinned down, though, into what at first seems like a stock character type – especially with his constant reciting of his personal truisms on life. Cohen finds Vincent’s moments of honest vulnerability without taking anything away from his intimidatingly tough exterior.
One of the only instances in which the film strikes a mute cord is with Stephen Moyer’s step-father character, who is a bit lazy and a little over-the-top; however, it is clearly at the expense of Harper’s character arc. Fortunately, Smith doesn’t spend a lot of time with Moyer, and regains focus easily in his other characters.
Smith also diverts the film’s few shortcomings with moments of humor that are just as unexpected as the film’s surprises. The humor adds a light and youthful tone to the otherwise intense story lines. Quips on teenage-young adult sexuality, drugs, and the police ride Smith’s delicate line between the age of his protagonist and the mature subject matter of his film.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
There is nothing absolutely groundbreaking about Smith’s crime thriller; however, – and that is a big however – the filmmaker packs in the entertainment, his actors layer in the intensity, and the result is a film perfect for kicking off the 2017 movie season. Smith takes special care to give audiences a fresh story with visual and structural tricks while Sheridan emerges as a matured actor with longevity, and Cohen treats audiences with yet another brilliantly executed performance.