I haven’t watched a new movie in the seventeen days since seeing Detour. It’s taken that long to decide what to say. There’s no aspect of Detour worth overlooking, and no aspect worth under-analyzing. Its Sisyphean restoration process? Nah, I don’t know more than you’d know if you watched the special features on the Criterion Blu-Ray. What about Detour as a film noir cornerstone? Nope, I’m learning about film noir as I go through the list and I’m not knowledgeable enough to properly evaluate the movie. What even are the qualifications of film noir? Black and white? Check. Unreliable narrator voice overs? Check. Detectives looking through Venetian blinds? Nope. Does that disqualify Detour? I have no idea.
What can I say about Detour? It’s a hell of a ride. The title suggests a time delay, a pit stop, the long way round; but at 69 minutes Detour may be one of the most efficient films I’ve ever seen. How wonderfully ironic. In summary, Detour is the story of a love struck pianist who’s hitchhiking cross country to reunite with his lover in Los Angeles. Along the way he finds himself in increasingly dubious circumstances. It’s a thrilling hard-luck story about a guy who makes mistakes, gets involved with some bad people, and tires to survive.
It reminds me of the 2005 ‘psychological thriller’ Derailed starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Anniston. They’re what I call ‘snowball’ movies. I don’t know if there’s an official scholarly term for stories like this, feel free to correct me if there is. I define ‘snowball’ movies as tragedies where relatively innocent characters make a few mistakes that propel them deeper and deeper into a criminal underworld. Their morals and personal values are challenged with threats of violence or more nuanced means of coercion which inevitably change their self perception from white knight to fallen angel. Their troubles continue to build on one another until they get out of control, like a snowball growing in size as it rolls down a hill.
I remember having a viscerally negative reaction to Derailed and wanting to never see it again. I find stories where miscommunications or mistakes ruin good people’s lives to be more terrifying than any slasher film and more horrific than any torture-porn. I don’t imagine many people actually end up in circumstances like the Saw films, but losing your job because you publicly said something dumb? That happens to people.
While they’re similar in plot structure, I had the opposite reaction to Detour. There’s something fantastic about Detour that makes it seem otherworldly. Whether it’s the unnatural look of black and white film or the hardboiled asthetic at the heart of film noir but something in Detour enabled me to disassociate its depiction of an unceremonious fall from grace from a real life tragedy. In this space I could appreciate the movie as a thrill ride and not a parable about the dangers of living an impure life.
Detour might be the most noir film I’ve seen yet. I’m happily learning more about the genre but I find it difficult to believe a more pure noir film exists. I highly recommend watching Detour and let me know which films noir I should check out in the future.