“The pyrotechnics and the whirlybird camera are no longer saying ’Look at me’; they give the film authority,” wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker about Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, calling its dissolves into split screen “a twinkle in your thought processes.” Certainly, your thought processes might twinkle with relish as the characters from Christopher Smith’s new film, Detour, waltz through a colorful neo-noir landscape that seems, on the surface, as much a product of the real as it is of their minds. Action is often splintered into split-screen diptychs and triptychs, which suggest puzzle pieces, but however striking some of these multi-layered compositions may be, they don’t contain multitudes. Because these images don’t burrow into the characters’ psyches, they only say, “Look at me.” And if they exude authority, which they do insofar as they’re imposingly air-tight in their construction, you may still wonder: “But whose authority exactly?”
Detour is openly but superficially influenced by Strangers on a Train. A law student, Harper (Tye Sheridan), resentful of his stepfather Vincent’s (Stephen Moyer) neglect of his mother, who’s in a coma after a car accident that may or may not have been Vincent’s fault, drunkenly enlists the services of a foul-mouthed rough, Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen), to “take care” of his problem. But the similarities to the Alfred Hitchcock classic end there, and for the worse. Never mind that Smith isn’t concerned in twinning Harper and Johnny Ray’s desires, spinning their union into a tale of homosocial obsession. The writer-director may recognize Harper’s complicity in a crime that he wishes he could take back, but he isn’t interested in locating any gravitas in Harper and Johnny Ray’s mutual recognition of the need to murder Vincent. For Johnny Ray, sticking to the plan may mean erasing a debt to the ominous Frank (John Lynch) and ensuring the safety of his tag-along “dancer” friend, Cherry (Bel Powley), but he treats her as if he wouldn’t mind if she were off his hands.
Detour is all text and no subtext. Just as Harper, Johnny Ray, and Cherry are about to set off for Las Vegas, where Vincent is ostensibly going to meet with a secret girlfriend, Smith introduces his first of many instances of split-screen. However photogenically energizing the effect is in the moment, watching the present-day car ride to Sin City collaged alongside scenes from earlier in Harper’s day, it becomes unmistakable that whatever dissonance is roused by the technique isn’t the sort that wishes to illuminate these characters’ traumas. One side of the frame simply alerts us to something one of these stick figures knows that the other doesn’t, at which point it becomes inevitable that the film’s fated denouement will be determined by the one part of the story simply catching up to the other. The effect of the film, then, becomes not unlike watching a puzzle solve itself without demanding either the audience’s emotional or intellectual investment.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from Apirl 13—24.