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A little more than halfway through William Dickerson’s Detour, the film’s protagonist, trapped in his truck deep underground, takes a moment to ponder and appreciate a tiny ant that has crawled into his vehicle (and potential tomb). The ant bites him. So much for kinship amongst the tiny and powerless. The metaphor is both obvious and apt—before the immensity of Nature, best-laid plans and self-centric lives are absurdly inconsequential. Ignore this disparity at your own peril. (But don’t be afraid to put up a fight, anyway.)

Despite doubling as a plausibility-straining endorsement for the battery life of Apple’s iPhone, Dickerson’s claustrophobic survival thriller proves itself a technically proficient, expertly paced affair. It hews awfully close to films like 2010’s Buried and 127 Hours—the basic story structure is, in fact, identical—though Dickerson is said to have had the script in play back in 2008 before it suffered a string of all-too-common Hollywood setbacks. (These included promised financing disappearing or made contingent on rewriting to make a producer’s wife the star, and multiple undisclosed big name actors pulling out due to the delays.) While the aforementioned movies found their footholds with It-List stars like Ryan Reynolds and A-List directors like Danny Boyle, respectively, Dickerson’s film had a few more years to serve in development purgatory.

Thankfully, Dickerson’s perseverance paid off. In Detour, Neil Hopkins steals the show as mildly douchey ad exec, Jackson Alder, whose truck is buried underground following a particularly nasty mudslide. (“Fuck you, California!” he exclaims in a video diary that increasingly becomes his last confession, will and testament.) Granted, it’s Hopkins’ show to steal—he’s the only cast member who doesn’t appear in flashback or video segment—but that also makes it his ball to drop, and his grip is iron-tight. As his character fearlessly digs his way through the literal and metaphorical dirt to attain the salvation he clearly didn’t realize he needed, Hopkins delivers a performance of muscular breadth (both emotionally and physically).

As hope of rescue diminishes, Alder’s inner-MacGuyver emerges, providing him the impetus to take as much stock in his life’s choices as he does the tools available in his truck. There’s an inventive playfulness to the script that might feel out of place through any combination of a less competent filmmaker, or less adroit lead performance.

As a result, it’s unlikely that any amount of Hollywood money or star power could have made Detour better. Watching Alder’s slowly dawning comprehension of the ironic absurdity of his predicament reveals a subtler lesson nested within the character’s interaction with that lowly ant: We all may be inconsequential specks before the immensity of the universe—but that doesn’t mean we can’t make ourselves smaller still through shallow preoccupations and selfish behavior. Or bigger through an awareness and concern for others.

Director: William Dickerson
Writers: William Dickerson, Dwight Moody
Starring: Neil Hopkins, Brea Grant
Release Date: Mar. 29, 2013 (Limited; VOD)