Again and again, movies show you killing, but it’s one in a thousand on-screen killings that might get you to feel something of what killing is actually like. The same goes for fucking, but there the numbers are worse: Whether it’s Hollywood’s quick-cut, nothing-below-the-waist bedroom montages, or the mechanized chug of assembly-line pornography, a virgin could see tens of thousands of movie couplings before catching one that even glances against a sense of what bodies feel when one’s inside another. That’s not a knock against the movies’ reliable kiss-kiss and bang-banging, but it is one against how infrequently they invite us fully into the experience. For all the thundering manipulations of our entertainments, why don’t we more often feel, as the lights come up, that we have been something more than passive observers?
Turns out there’s one here’s-what-it’s-like feeling skilled filmmakers can reliably stir: the clammy panic of claustrophobia. Think of the blackest crawl space you encountered as a child, and then imagine curling up inside it, at midnight, for the better part of 90 minutes, and you’re getting close to the experience of watching writer/director William Dickerson’s debut feature, Detour—and, yes, that’s a compliment.
Dickerson’s thriller details the efforts of a prickish ad exec to survive a Worst-Case Scenario disaster—the kind of thing that most movie heroes would triumph over in a reel or two before moving on to the next one. (Well, except the heroes of Buried and 127 Hours.) In this case, a coastal California mudslide buries his car, leaving that ad bro (Neil Hopkins)—and us—in crushing darkness. From there, he has to get it together first to stay alive and then somehow to escape, even as the earth presses against a glass sunroof that—just when you’re starting to relax a bit—begins to whine and split.
Basics are an immediate challenge: How to pee? What to breathe? What to do when the earth shifts and the roof dimples? The ad bro conducts an inventory, searching for uses for the junk that accumulates beneath seats and in the (thankfully) accessible trunk space. During the best sequences, Detour feels like three heady improvisations all happening at once: The character crafts clever and surprising solutions to his ever-mounting problems; the writer/director likewise bests a near-insurmountable challenge, that of maintaining audience interest in a film set in a black box; and you, possibly in a sweat, mull the practicalities—”what would I use the tire for?”—as well as the bull-session Big Questions, like “How bad would things have to get before I just decided to die?”
A handful of flashbacks set outside the car, seen as videos on the ad bro’s phone, offer minor relief but are themselves less assured than the buried-alive material. In them, we get confirmation that the ad bro actually is the prick the movie signaled the moment it made clear he was an ad bro. (Brea Grant, in the near-cameo role of his girlfriend, beams gamely.) His harrowing underworld ordeal inspires him to try to be a better person, of course, but that arc—acted with square-jawed conviction by Hopkins—is just a gloss on all the times we’ve seen executive characters learn to chuck their cellphones and stop missing Little League games. More affecting are those moments when the weight of nature has mashed the cocksureness from him: Moist-eyed, mud-caked, often caught between a howl and a whimper, Hopkins is as good at panic as he is at selling peak-human determination. By the end, he does what he must, all greased up like an engine part, and the performance and filmmaking are invigorating. Even as you’re putting together just what he’s doing, you’ll feel what he’s going through. It’s enough to make you hope that Dickerson’s next film dares to try capturing one of those even trickier experiences.
Slideshow: Top 20 Claustrophobia Movies