"I need you to survive the night."
Kathyrn Bigelow has come a long way since she caught mainstream attention in 1991 for ‘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 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 how intense and involving Bigelow’s direction is. Despite being nearly two and a half hours long I would have happily watched a longer cut of the movie, especially since that from a structural standpoint that could be what ‘Detroit’ needed.
As it is the movie feels sprawling and unfocussed. 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 ‘Detroit’ covers a lot within its broad scope, it still feels like it only scratches the surface of what it sets up. Rather than being about the riots as a whole ‘Detroit’ puts its 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 as a whole 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 of the movie plays out as if it’s the first episode of such, setting the stage for an ensemble piece that we will explore in more detail further down the road. However those details never really arise, and the movie movies forwards without ever showing its characters in a deeper light. Then when it reaches its third act to focus 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, but though it doesn’t live 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 an unrelenting tension to the movie, even during its quieter scenes that create this atmosphere of a city on the verge of boiling over. It captures both the broader undertones of that era in American history but also the events unfolding directly in front of the audience.
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 make 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. The performance that is even more astounding though, is Will Poulter portraying a 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 kind of 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.