Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie
Kathryn Bigelow has come a long way since she caught mainstream attention in 1991 with Point Break. She has gone from making movies about bank robbing surfers to high octane social dramas such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Her ability to observe major historical events with a visceral yet distant nature allows her films to be simultaneously powerful and objective. By all filmmaking accounts she would appear to be the perfect fit for this retelling of the 1967 Detroit riots.
In the summer of 1967, as racial tensions run high in the city of Detroit, a report of gunshots prompts the city’s authorities to search and seize an annex of the nearby Algiers Motel. Several policemen start to flout procedure by forcefully and viciously interrogating guests to get a confession. By the end of the night, three unarmed men are gunned down while several others are brutally beaten.
I can say upfront that Detroit is not as masterfully constructed as Bigelow’s two previous directorial efforts. When it is at its best it is a magnificent accomplishment of visceral filmmaking that completely transports you into another era of history. Its scenes of violence are outright terrifying due to Bigelow’s intense and involving directorial style. Despite being nearly two and a half hours long, I would have happily watched a longer cut of the movie, which Detroit may have even benefited from.
I need you to survive the night.
As it is, the movie feels sprawling and unfocused. It’s a fantastic display of filmmaking but it struggles to come together as a cohesive whole. At times I felt as if I was watching the first part of a miniseries rather than a movie, because although it covers a lot within its broad scope, the film still feels like it only scratches the surface of what it sets up.
Rather than being about the riots it puts the focus on the eye of the storm that is the Algiers Motel incident, which would be fine if it were treated as an isolated piece of storytelling, but Detroit feels awkwardly caught between telling the bigger story of the city and focussing upon the one instigating incident.
If anything, it makes the movie feel more like an unfinished miniseries than a complete film. The first act plays out as if it’s the first episode of a series, setting the stage for an ensemble piece that we will explore in more detail further down the road.
You don’t talk about this to anyone, ever.
However those details never really arise, and the film moves forwards without ever showing its characters in a deeper light. Then when it reaches its third act and focuses upon the subsequent court case that followed the motel incident, it represents a dramatic tonal shift that does not quite fit with the rest of the movie.
All of this makes Detroit sound like a disappointment, yet despite not quite living up to the perfect standards we have become used to from Bigelow, it is still an impressive achievement of filmmaking. It may be a flawed film but it is undeniably powerful and Bigelow’s direction is impeccable, being frighteningly intense and calmly observant at the same time. It feels unbiased and objective but also emotionally raw and breathtakingly real. Her style of directing remains similar to that of The Hurt Locker which makes Detroit feel more like a war movie than anything else.
There is such an unrelenting tension, even during its quieter scenes that creates this atmosphere of a city at breaking point. It captures both the broader undertones of that era in American history but also the events unfolding directly in front of the audience.
I’m just gonna assume you’re all criminals.
What elevates Detroit even more are the fantastic performances by its ensemble cast. Everyone is working at the top of their game so it would be pointless to list them by name, take my word for it in that they are all superb. I will however, highlight two performances as being particularly fantastic and very worthy of awards consideration. The first is John Boyega, who despite not being in the movie as much as the marketing campaign would have you believe, does such a fantastic job of balancing the conflicting aspects of his character. He’s a man trying to restore order to the situation whilst battling his own internal turmoil and Boyega portrays this brilliantly.
However, the film’s standout performance has to be Will Poulter’s racist cop. Poulter neglects to portray the character as a one dimensional monster. He plays him with nuance and honesty, providing him with multiple layers that if anything make him even more frightening. This is someone who can blend into any society, but harbours such a horrific prejudice that when it takes charge it becomes all the more shocking.
Masterful on a technical level and boasting some of the best performances of the year, when Detroit is at its best it is astonishing. Despite some serious issues with structure and pacing, it is still more than worth your time.