It may be tempting, and not entirely inaccurate, to describe Christopher Smith’s “Detour” as “Sliding Doors” reimagined by Quentin Tarantino, but this cleverly twisty neo-noir thriller turns out to be more substantial and surprising than such logline shorthand might suggest. Indeed, some VOD viewers likely will desire an instant replay of the film, to more fully appreciate (or at least better understand) how its parallel plotlines contrast and converge to intriguing effect. The only real downside to a rerun: A few minor gaps in logic could be more annoying the second time around.
Tye Sheridan offers an engaging variation of the prototypical noir protagonist as Harper, a Los Angeles law student who blames Vincent (Stephen Moyer), his despised stepfather, for the auto crash that left his mother comatose. While drowning his sorrows in a seedy bar, Harper makes the mistake of chatting up Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen of “Brooklyn”), a mood-swinging bad boy whose tough talk probably isn’t mere bluster, and then compounds his error by telling the thug about his ill regard for his stepdad.
“Sliding Doors,” Peter Howitt’s 1998 split-level comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow, ingeniously alternated between two different paths taken by the same character, each depending on whether she caught or missed an underground train on a fateful afternoon. Smith, working from his own script, borrows a few pages from Howitt’s game plan, but employs the set-up for an appreciably darker scenario.
In his version, Harper wakes up the morning after to find Johnny Ray on his doorstep, accompanied by Cherry (Bel Powley of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), his stripper-chippie girlfriend, and ready to take Harper to Las Vegas, where he plans to kill Vincent — for a price. (Although some scenes actually were filmed in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, most of the movie was shot in South Africa.)
Does he go or does he stay? In one storyline, Harper reluctantly agrees to go along for the ride, and winds up on a circuitous route that places all three travelers in close contact with an inconveniently suspicious cop (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and a dangerously impatient drug dealer (potently played by John Lynch). In the other storyline, Harper refuses to leave home, gets into a violent altercation with Vincent, and frantically copes with the aftermath. For a lengthy stretch, Smith cuts back and forth between each narrative, teasingly suggesting that, in any context, at any time, there’s always a good chance Harper will make a bad choice. And then something else happens.
Smith’s “Detour” most certainly isn’t a remake of Edgar G. Ulmer’s “Detour,” arguably the scuzziest great movie ever made and definitely the most noir of all classic noirs. On the other hand, the writer/director briefly bridges the gap between his parallel storylines with a cheeky film-clip tip of the hat to Ulmer’s fatalistic 1945 film. More important, though, the new movie’s recycled title does double duty: It brazenly acknowledges Smith’s debt to genre conventions, yet also encourages faint hope — whether justified or not — for a deviation from the primrose path to hell.
Smith litters the film with wink-wink allusions to everything from Ken Kesey to Confucius, and conspicuously places a movie poster for Paul Newman’s “Harper” in his protagonist’s bedroom. But neither these touches nor his occasional split-screen images are quite enough to qualify as undue self-indulgence. In a similar vein: Cohen and Powley are given nothing more than stock characters to play, but they turn in performances that are nothing less than impressive. It’s clear that they, like Sheridan and Smith, know their noir.