Film noir in rich colour

Detour

Written and directed by Christopher Smith

97 minutes, rated MA 15+

3 stars

There’s no such thing as originality, but that doesn’t mean you stop aiming for it. Detour is a compendium of other movies – very little of it from the famous 1945 film noir of the same name by Edgar G Ulmer – but British director Christopher Smith knows that we know that he knows his way around the history of the medium. He throws in a clip from the Ulmer film for those who don’t know.

The problem with winking at the audience is that it’s hard then to take what we see seriously. The spell is broken. Every time a director throws a reference at us – and there is another from the start of Sunset Boulevard, with a body in a pool – we become more conscious of the director’s technique. And Smith has a lot of technique, too much for his own good.

A director as experienced as he is – with five European-funded features and a TV series to his credit – could afford to take a backseat, to allow his film to breathe. No chance: he wants his work recognised. That said, Detour is still a load of fun – bad people doing bad things to other bad people, and sometimes someone trying to do good – but we know how that’s going to work out, don’t we?

Film noir has its roots in the loss of American innocence during the Depression and the war. It was a sort of pact between Hollywood and the audience, to give them drama that recognised how much audiences had grown up, how much they’d been through. People doing desperate things, as entertainment for people who now understood that desperate things sometimes had to be done.

It was a beautiful period for black and white cinema but you can’t get very far with that now – so Smith goes the opposite way. This movie has the rich, saturated colours of the old Kodachrome film stock – big blue skies, rich reds and yellows. And instead of poverty, we start in privilege, as young law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) listens to his law professor talk about how a man escaped a first degree murder charge by fleeing to Mexico. Right there, we know where the movie will end up. If Smith can get there without us guessing his every move, his work is done. By my score, he gets about half way. Some of the plot moves could not be more obvious if delivered by a man in a Western Union hat.

Harper’s mother is in a coma, after a car accident. Harper blames his step-father Vincent (Stephen Moyer), whom he accuses of changing her will. Drowning his sorrows in a dead-beat bar, Harper meets Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), a tough guy with tatts and a keen eye for a business opportunity. Soon they’re driving west, with Johnny’s girl Cherry, a ‘dancer’ (Bel Powley) in the backseat. They are intent on murder in Las Vegas – always a good start to a story.

One of the curious things about Detour is that most of it was filmed in South Africa, with a mix of British Film Institute and European Union money, plus South African incentives. I’m guessing most of the interiors were South Africa, and the road scenes are in the real Nevada desert, because that’s hard to fake. It’s pretty seamless. The film has a nice wide-open, wide angle feel to it, which lends a further sense of irony – dirty deeds about to be done while sprinklers water the lawns of Harper’s well-to-do neighbourhood.

Much of the story takes place in split time – two stories travelling together, the earlier one revealing and complicating the other. Smith takes the ‘two sides to every story’ idea literally, splitting the screen in multiple designs. Mondrian would have been proud. Most of the actors are relatively new, but one of them is a clue to another inspiration. John Lynch does a scary cameo as Frank, a dude so bad that even Johnny Ray is terrified of him. I’m guessing Lynch is in the film as a nod to Sliding Doors, that other film in split time.

Even with all the nods and winks, the derivations and homages, Detour is good dirty fun. It could have been much more, if Smith took his genre-robbing more seriously. Without more desperation, it’s not noir. Something paler, perhaps.