Skilfully written, energetically performed and full of delicious twists, "Detour" (2016) is a highly enjoyable crime thriller that intrigues by using an interesting structural device, entertains by keeping its action well-paced and displays its writer's affection for film noir by referencing movies that were clearly some of his greatest influences. The plot and its characters are consistent with those which were typically found in noir movies of the past and its fatalistic qualities are also consistent with the ethos of the style.
Young, wealthy L.A. law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) is consumed with grief about his mother who's in a coma and fighting for her life and he's also full of anger and hatred for his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer) who he blames for his mother's predicament. He thinks that his stepfather is uncaring because he's failed to regularly visit his wife in hospital and furthermore, suspects that Vincent is having an affair with a Las Vegas cocktail waitress called Rosy Hills.
One night, after visiting his mother in hospital, Harper drowns his sorrows at a nearby bar where he overhears a guy called Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen) talking about a scam that he and his girlfriend Cherry (Bel Powley) had been involved in during which she had lured unsuspecting men to a hotel room so that he could steal their cash. Unfortunately, when one of their victims had become violent and cut Cherry's face with a knife, she'd produced a gun and shot the man dead. Johnny and Harper get involved in some unpleasant exchanges when Johnny gets offended about Harper listening in to his conversation but later, as the two men talk and the inebriated Harper describes his issues with his stepfather; Johnny offers to take care of Vincent for a price ($20,000) and Harper seemingly agrees.
Next morning, the hung-over Harper is shocked and horrified when Johnny and Cherry turn up at the front door of his mansion all ready to go to Las Vegas to take care of Vincent. Harper tries to get out of going but Johnny isn't prepared to take no for an answer and it's at this point that the narrative splits into two parallel versions of what follows.
In one plot-line, Harper accompanies Johnny and Cherry on a road trip to Vegas during which they get stopped by a state trooper who had seen them leave a diner without paying and visit a menacing drug dealer called Frank (John Lynch) who demands payment of an outstanding debt from the terrified Johnny. In the second plot-line, Harper simply stays at home and resolves his problems with Vincent in a different way. The way in which these two plot-lines eventually dovetail into each other is achieved by a neat time flip that enables the story to proceed to its surprising conclusion.
One of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of the movie is the way in which writer and director Christopher Smith openly acknowledges some of his influences. Examples of this are the way in which the original agreement between Harper and Johnny reflects a similar arrangement in Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" (1951), a swimming pool scene at Harper's mansion which strongly evokes a memorable sequence in "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) and a situation involving the state trooper where, after Cherry turns the tables on him, anyone who's seen "Thelma & Louise" (1991) will immediately know where he's going to end up! Harper's name is taken from Paul Newman's 1966 movie of the same name (as confirmed by a poster on Harper's bedroom wall) and Dr Ulmer, at the hospital, gets his name from Edgar G Ulmer's ultra-gritty 1945 movie also called "Detour".
Smith cleverly uses an excerpt from Al Roberts' narration from the 1945 movie in two contemporaneous scenes which feature Harper during his road trip and sitting in his home watching the movie on TV and also shows considerable flair in the way in which he uses split-screens. His characters are made real by great performances from Tye Sheridan as the intense main protagonist, Bel Powley as the damaged Cherry and Emory Cohen as Johnny Ray who, as well as being a volatile thug periodically makes philosophical statements by, for example, reportedly paraphrasing Confucius or remarking that "as you get older, you realize that life isn't about the choice you make, it's about the one you're given".
"Detour" (2016) is so entertaining on so many levels that it's surprising that it hasn't been given the exposure it needs to achieve the commercial success that it deserves.