Strangers on a Train meets Sliding Doors meets Brick meets True Romance. If that sounds like quite a lot to squeeze into one package, hold on, because writer-director Christopher Smith is just getting started. Detour is the kind of movie that openly nods and winks to its many influences, made by the type of filmmaker that wants audiences to know that he's shouting about his references on purpose. Smith even goes so far as to have one of his characters watch part of a 1945 film noir with the same title as the movie they're in.
When a filmmaker nods so eagerly at his or her sources of inspiration, one of two things tends to happen. Ideally, they shape those influences into an engaging new package that builds upon familiar parts. More often, they end up being overshadowed by the better filmmakers whose movies they keep reminding you you could be watching instead. Aiming for the former but delivering the latter, Detour proves a feature more concerned with showing viewers what it's doing than actually doing it well. Smith certainly knows and loves the films that he's homaging, but making that plain isn't the same as making an entertaining crime thriller in their image.
That the movie's protagonist not only shares his name with a 1966 Paul Newman movie, but has a poster of the film on his bedroom wall, says plenty. So does the fact that audiences first meet Los Angeles law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) as he's listening to a lecture about the escape tactics of pursued criminals. Throw in a grudge against the stepfather (Stephen Moyer) he blames for his mother's comatose state, a chance bar meeting with local thug Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), and a stripper with a heart of gold named Cherry (Bel Powley), and it all starts to feel rather derivative — even when the movie's big gimmick kicks into gear.
Once Harper discovers what he hired Johnny Ray to do during their drunken evening together, Detour splits its narrative into two timelines. In one, the new acquaintances make the sunny drive to Las Vegas with murder on their minds; in the other, Harper stays home, although that still ends up being quite eventful. Smith flits from one story to the other, and frequently splashes them together using slick split-screen imagery. Sadly, the device doesn't help either section shake the been-there, done-that feeling – and neither does the film's predictable destination.
Smith does, at least, take a trio of impressive actors along for the ride, even if none are quite at their best. Sheridan, Cohen and Powley have all given much, much better performances in Mud, Brooklyn and The Diary of a Teenage Girl respectively, but at least they try to make their stock-standard characters seem like something more. That's not exactly high praise, but it does sum up Detour's fortunes quite perfectly. A loving attempt to tackle a familiar genre, the film does everything it can to speed into new territory. Alas, it gets lost along the way.