A claustrophobic thriller with heavy psychological overtones, director William Dickerson’s debut feature Detour may not score an “A” for originality, but it does get high marks for tension and style in telling the story of a fast-talking, self-absorbed adman who undergoes an intense personal crisis after getting trapped in his car under a mountain of mud. Though it’s true 2010’s Buried covered similar ground and Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours leaves Detour in the dust thematically, this modest indie is an impressive start for a young director who knows how to make the most of limited resources while effectively putting us in the headspace of a panicked man in a desperate situation.
California advertising executive Jackson Adler (Neil Hopkins) is driving to an important business meeting when a flash mudslide plunges him into a desperate fight for survival. Subsequently awakening in a darkened car in the middle of the afternoon, he quickly discerns that he is in mortal danger. At first, Jackson is hopeful that a rescue crew will reach him before night falls, but after hours pass with no signs of salvation, an intense dread begins to set in. With each tick of the clock, Jackson reflects deeper on his past and his fear of commitment to his pregnant girlfriend Laurie (Brea Grant). Meanwhile, as he passes the time watching videos of Laurie on his smart phone, recording video messages for her and his unborn son, and drawing up his will, his car buckles under the sheer weight of the mud that’s entombed it, and his oxygen begins to run low. Frantic, Jackson’s survival instincts start to kick in, prompting him to take stock of his resources as he attempts to assess the situation. But his time is running out, and if he fails to take action soon, odds are the man who could once talk himself out of any jam will be forever silenced in a subcompact tomb.
The first thing that stands out while watching Detour is that Dickerson has an impressive knack for keeping us visually engaged. Though the film does eventually find its way above ground via the occasional flashback, the director makes the most of the limited car interior as our terrified protagonist comes to grips with his dire circumstances. Dickerson’s creative use of angles and small camera movements serve to enhance the swelling anxiety of his economical screenplay (co-written with Dwight Moody) while constantly keeping us on edge. Knowing that viewers will instinctively put themselves in the situation as Jackson’s psychological endurance is repeatedly tested, Dickerson and Moody display an impressive sense of pacing while revealing story developments, and committed lead Hopkins pulls out all the stops to make his character’s plight believable. It’s the lead performance that can easily make or break a small film like Detour, and it’s a testament to both Dickerson’s abilities as a director and Hopkins’ talent as an actor that we continue to root for Jackson even when the character comes off as less than likable.
The most impressive aspect of Detour, however, is the way that Dickerson and Moody take us inside Jackson’s head as he fluctuates between optimism and fatalism. For anyone who’s ever drifted out of consciousness due to sheer exhaustion as his or her mind struggles to stay perceptive, the sporadic sequences that find Jackson’s brain playing tricks on him display an acute understanding of how our subconscious operates under times of duress and provide the movie with some of its most unsettling imagery. Later, as Jackson finds himself forced to take action, composer Henning Lohner’s minimalist score hits all the right notes, and Dickerson manages to keep the character’s fate tantalizingly unclear until the last possible moment, making Detour a deeply immersive exercise in low-budget suspense from start to finish. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan