Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Unreliable Narrator Theory of DETOUR

The other day, I bought the Criterion Collection's new Blu-Ray of DETOUR. It's a divine object. Beautiful packaged, it is a glorious restoration (the same 4k restoration I saw last year in theaters) supported by a bounty of enticing extras--a documentary on director Edgar G. Ulmer, an interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, an insightful essay by the critic and Jim Thompson biographer Robert Polito, and more.

One aspect of this package that I find interesting, however, is the repeated insinuation in some of the extras that DETOUR's doomed protagonist Al Roberts is a liar and a murderer. In his essay, Polito writes that DETOUR is a "progression of increasingly awful and improbable flashbacks" and calls Roberts' tale of fate and misfortune "steadily more suspect." In his interview, Isenberg makes similar comments, offhandedly implying that DETOUR is essentially the bullshit alibi of a killer. 

The theory that Roberts is lying to the audience in his voiceover narration has been around for a while. I think Andrew Britton was the first critic I can remember floating this theory, though it may well predate him. In his 1998 review of the film, Roger Ebert cited Britton directly and fully embraced the theory.

I find this theory intriguing. I also find it wrong. 

There's nothing in the text of the film to suggest that Roberts is anything other than a doomed man lamenting his fate. We never catch him in a lie. His tale is outlandish, sure, but that puts it on par with roughly one hundred percent of the film noir canon. Hell, most noirs start at outlandish and go from there. 

I suppose my bigger problem with the unreliable narrator theory is that it undercuts what the film itself is telling us it means. DETOUR is the greatest statement of predestination in all of film noir. It ends with Roberts intoning the line, "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." As it is, this is one of the greatest lines in all of noir, but if Roberts has been lying to us about the deaths of Charles Haskell and/or Vera -- if he is not a victim of fate, but rather a victim of weakness and his own low character -- then this line totally misrepresents the entire story we've just watched.

Moreover, the unreliable narrator theory of DETOUR undercuts what, for me, is the film's defining characteristic: its wholehearted embrace of nihilistic doom. The message that Al Roberts gives us is shocking -- maybe too shocking for some viewers to bear. He's telling us that we're fucked. Whichever way we go, he says, fate will stick out its foot to trip us. Embracing the unreliable narrator, however, means assigning a moral judgement to his fate. Like Job's fickle friends, purveyors of this theory seem to be saying, "You must have done SOMETHING to upset God."

Maybe that's easier. Maybe DETOUR, undiluted with academic theory, is just too strong a shot of nihilistic despair. And, hey, I don't begrudge anyone the comfort of their theories. Life's hard. I get it. But I'll take my DETOUR straight up, no chaser.


Mark said...

Agreed. There's a scene towards the end of 'Band of Brothers' where the men witness a German officer being executed as they trundle by in the back of a truck. One veteran smirks and shrugs at the open-mouthed replacement sitting next to him. Watching 'Detour,' I have the same sense of resignation to fate as that veteran. It's those that haven't personally felt what fate is truly capable of that would float such a goofy theory.

David Rachels said...

I think there's a reasonable middle ground here. I don't think Al is a liar at all, but I do think that he's not as helpless in all this as he seems to think. It's almost as if he wants to be doomed.