Law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) recruits a criminal, Johnny (Emory Cohen), to kill his step-father Vincent (Stephen Moyer) in Vegas, convinced Vincent put Harper’s mother in a coma. Harper, Johnny and Johnny’s girlfriend Cherry (Bel Powley) go on the road to Vegas, but it’s not a smooth trip.
With Black Death, Creep and Severance under his belt, British writer-director Christopher Smith has a reputation for disturbing horror, but this American-set film has a little more in common with his time-bending thriller Triangle. Smith has assembled a fashionable cast of charismatic young talents: Tye Sheridan (Mud, X-Men: Apocalypse) as the troubled young law student Harper, Emory Cohen (Brooklyn) as his shady new cohort Johnny and Brit Bel Powley (The Diary Of A Teenage Girl) as exploited young stripper Cherry, who seems less than happy to be along for the ride.
Smith puts the emphasis on style over character development, but it’s still a fun ride.
What could be a simple road-trip-to-a-hit movie is perked up considerably by a time-twisting conceit that appears to borrow from an unlikely source. Namely, Gwyneth Paltrow’s ’90s ‘what if?’ romcom Sliding Doors. After a drunken night discussing the deed, Harper answers the door to Johnny, who’s ready to roll and won’t take no for an answer. Everything hinges on Harper’s decision: should he commit to the crime, or try to wriggle out of it but risk attracting the wrath of a hardened crim in the process? It’s an instantly engaging dilemma, made more so as Smith plays with the timeline. Where it disappoints is in how it handles its secrets — most of the reveals either come too early or are too heavily signalled, but there’s still enough along the journey to entertain, even if it doesn’t amaze.
But it looks great, with cinematography by Eden Lake’s Christopher Ross. Detour is a stylish movie, enjoying the familiar dusty hues of a road trip to Vegas and attractively colour-coding its characters: Harper’s pristine, preppy yellow jacket contrasts with Johnny’s dark, ripped checked shirt and multiple tattoos. Both actors nail it, though Cohen has a showier role as the aggressive, manipulative, coke-snorting crim who might just have a few surprises of his own up his sleeves (if he had any). Powley’s character feels underwritten, but she still gives Juno Temple fresh competition for those trashy young temptress roles that routinely pop up in American-set thrillers.
The supporting cast deliver, including True Blood’s Stephen Moyer as Johnny’s step-father Vincent and Gbenga Akinnagbe as a cop who rightly eyes the gang with suspicion at a roadside diner. The obligatory menacing drug dealer is well played by John Lynch who, appropriately enough, also appeared in Sliding Doors. If these tropes seem familiar, you get the impression they are meant to be: in terms of visuals and character, Smith pays homage to the sleazy US road trip drama more confidently than he apes the classic neo-noir.
There’s also a dose of high-energy teen comedy in the shape of the amiable Jared Abrahamson. He plays Harper’s useless pal, Paul, who goes into long rants about liquid acid experiments that change his hair colour, while — excruciatingly — temporarily forgetting that his friend’s mother is in a coma. The coma storyline feels quietly poignant, but under-utilised. Still, there’s so much going on with subplots, motivations and schemes, several backstories are neglected. Smith is certainly putting the emphasis on style and schematics over character development, but it’s still a fun ride.
Sheridan, Cohen and Powley are a terrific trio in a stylish crime thriller that takes us on a trip through the seedy side of California and beyond.