The “trapped-in-a-[blank]” premise seems perfect for our current age of DIY cinema, requiring only a small camera, one actor, and whatever the [blank] happens to be. The recent thriller 127 Hours, operating on a higher budget level, exercised the freedom to leave the space and open up the film to flashbacks, hallucinations, and events on the outside. But like the Ryan-Reynolds-in-a-coffin movie Buried, the cheaper and more rudimentary Detour confines as much of the action as possible to one location—in this case, an SUV buried deep in a California mudslide.
The limitations have the positive effect of amplifying the intensity and sense of claustrophobia, because viewers are also being denied oxygen and open air, and Detour emphasizes the ingenuity necessary to survive in such a situation. But there’s a downside, too, in that Detour is only about survival, leaving all other themes neck-deep in the muck.
Co-writer/director William Dickerson smartly begins Detour underground, providing no immediate explanation about what happened, or even when it happened. From that jolt of panic, it eventually becomes clear that Neil Hopkins, a slick thirtysomething ad man, is trapped in a Jeep Cherokee under a frame-crushing, windshield-fracturing pile of dirt. Among his inventory of possessions: a fully charged iPhone, a half-consumed bottle of water, a small bag of chocolate-covered pretzels, a car jack, and one very useful piece of camping equipment. As the hours pass, Dickerson flashes back to happier scenes of Hopkins at home with his wife (Brea Grant) and flashes forward to a stress dream about what life might be like if he survives the ordeal.
With no one around to turn monologue into dialogue, Detour is basically a one-man show for Hopkins, a TV actor who acquits himself reasonably well in loopy chats with himself and heartfelt missives to iPhone video. (As carefully as he manages his food and water resources, there appears to be no limit to smartphone battery usage.) But the film concerns itself too narrowly with the MacGyver business of Hopkins improvising ways to draw water from the soil, or to communicate to whoever might be above ground. Dickerson passes on the occasion for existential drama and goes for the race-against-the-clock urgency of an ordinary guy trying to crawl out of his predicament. It’s effective enough, but there isn’t much to it.