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New Release Review - DETOUR

A law student enlists a volatile criminal to kill his mother's boyfriend.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Christopher Smith

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley, Stephen Moyer



As we know it today, the term 'B-movie' refers to the schlocky sci-fi flicks of the 1950s, but it's a label originally coined in reference to the low budget poverty row productions churned out to play as the bottom half of double bills in the years before the arrival of TV. These movies spanned several genres, but the crime thriller was the predominant form. Limited in both resources and running time, B pictures required a special sort of filmmaker, one who could work within their economy of storytelling and budget. Perhaps the finest of these directors was Edgar G Ulmer, and arguably the best of all B-movies is his 1945 mini masterpiece Detour, a movie now held in as high regard as the 'A' film noirs of its era.


British filmmaker Christopher Smith is the modern equivalent of a B director. He makes low budget genre movies (Creep, Severance, Triangle) that might receive a week long limited theatrical run at best, before hitting DVD and VOD. Fitting then that he names his US debut after Ulmer's film, a clip from which he incorporates in a daring manner that is either the most pretentious piece of filmmaking we'll see all year or a dazzling homage of the like Godard would applaud.

Smith's Detour stars Tye Sheridan, not as a down on his heels loser like the protagonist of the Ulmer movie, but as a wealthy, privileged young law student, Harper (named after the 1966 Paul Newman detective thriller, a poster of which hangs on his bedroom wall). Even the elites suffer however, and Harper is torn apart by the imminent death of his mother, who lies in a coma following a car crash. Harper blames his mother's condition on her boyfriend, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), who he believes manufactured the accident in an attempt to get his hands on her money.


While on a drunken bender, Harper is befriended by lowlife criminal Johnny Ray (a deliciously sleazy Emory Cohen). After blurting out his desire to see Vincent dead, Harper is shocked when Johnny Ray agrees to kill him for $20,000. The next morning, Harper wakes with a raging hangover and no recollection of striking such a deal. That is, until Johnny Ray, along with his long-suffering hooker girlfriend Cherry (Bel Powley), turns up on his doorstep ready to commit the crime.

Thus Detour morphs into a road movie, so often the genre of choice for European directors making their first American film. It's a genre you just can't pull off in Europe, a continent of too few roads and too many borders, and every filmmaker from Britain, France, Germany etc wants to turn their camera on the open highways of America's SouthWest, a part of the world that seems to embody genre cinema like no other. Crucially it's also a lot cheaper than shooting in New York or LA, and those wide vistas add a scope and a production value that's priceless.


But just when we think we know where this particular road trip is heading, Smith begins to play games with us, incorporating flashbacks and parallel timelines in a manner reminiscent of his inventive 2009 thriller Triangle. He also dishes out crumbs of information that keep us guessing as to who the heroes and villains of this story are.

Lay its narrative out in a beat by beat arrangement and Detour is a routine road thriller, but what elevates it above such low grade fare is its experimental execution. The story isn't important here; Detour is all about the storytelling, and like the director he pays tribute so explicitly to here, Smith displays an ability to create a minor work of art with restricted means. Ulmer would approve.

Detour is in UK cinemas May 26th.



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