Tension and fear aren't typically words we associate with award-worthy cinema, but The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow has made it her forte. With Detroit, Bigelow once again turns a dramatic thriller into powerful commentary on the state of The American social order; and with race and authoritarianism as her two main subjects this time, the Oscar-winning director grabs hold of a particularly charged live-wire, and plunges right into the pool of water she'd poured out under viewers' feet.
Set in the Detroit riots of 1967, the film follows several characters whose lives converge in one terrible night at the infamous Algiers Motel. We meet Larry (Algee Smith), a talented young singer in the up and coming group, The Dramatics; Larry's sensitive and kind friend, Fred (Jacob Latimore); violent police patrolman Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) and his partners Flynn (Ben O'Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor); free-spirited Ohio girls Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever); surly Algiers regular, Carl (Jason Mitchell); and local security guard, Dismukes (John Boyega). A low-key night in the midst of bedlam turns tragic when police and National Guardsmen in the area mistakenly identify a possible sniper hiding out in the Algiers. Upon arriving on the scene, officer Krauss and his partners detain the kids in the hotel, subjecting them to tortures that leave multiple people dead, and others traumatized for life. That's just the beginning of some horrible events that scarred the city of Detroit (literally and figuratively), forever afterward.
The power of Detroit is found in its unflinching look at one of the most overlooked crimes in 20th century American history. Through the performances of her talented cast, and Bigelow's own laser-like insight into how cinematic imagery evokes primal emotional responses, the Hurt Locker director constructs a movie that not only works as one of the most adept cinematic thrillers in recent memory, but also as a mosaic of both the overt and covert racial/social tensions that affect us today.
Bigelow and her script writer/collaborator Mark Boal have excelled at telling stories that dive deep into primary characters and their story arc. With Detroit, the pair cast a much wider character net, but don't lose a single step in term of insight and impact. In fact, this film demonstrates that Bigelow and Boal do quite well with an ensemble format, using the wider focus to make the setting and subtext of the story the real main character. Detroit is a slice of life that gets elevated into a metaphor and symbol for an entire American social struggle, while never losing a grounded focus on its characters and events.
If there is one drawback to the film, it's that it is uneven and entirely top-heavy. At two and a half hours long, Detroit is a serious time commitment; the first hour and a half goes by effortlessly, as Bigelow constructs and executes something akin to a perfect horror film, as we watch ill-fated victims head into a nightmarish scenario. The second act of the police terrorizing the occupants at the Algiers Motel is some of the best filmmaking seen all year - which is to say, it is so intensely uncomfortable, and disturbing, that some viewers may actually be adversely affected by the experience. The gut-punch of what racial intolerance and police brutality really look like, and how ugly they truly are, is entirely the point. The filmmakers confidently rely on our modern, media-saturated culture to have sewn seeds of association to these events, so that the imagery breaks through the numbing complacency of hearing about racism and brutality so often. Detroit punctures so hard and deeply that numbness can't help but feel like raw, electric pain again - and that discomfort becomes a parting gift, as realization of how little this all has changed truly sinks in.
Where Bigelow and Boal fall short is in the third act. The last hour of Detroit deals with the aftermath of the Algiers incident - including the legal fallout for both the victims and police officers. That final act meanders through its selection of scenes, and loses a lot of impact the preceding acts had. The film is meant to arrive at an endpoint that incites emotion and discourse instead, it plays like a cumbersome montage of history, which keeps the viewer at much further emotional distance than the visceral experience beforehand.
Detroit only works as well as it does thanks to the power of its main players. Young Will Poulter (We're The Millers, The Maze Runner) is almost too good at playing a psychotic cop; from his very first lines, Poulter is the scene-stealing villain the movie needs, and makes Krauss far more than a stereotypical "bad cop." The confident and deranged way the young patrolman carries himself makes his prejudiced views and fascistic approach to policing a powerful echo of our modern dilemma. Ben O'Toole's Flynn is a bit more one-note, but Jack Reynor (Transformers 4) is almost unrecognizable as the less experienced (and nefarious) officer Demens. The film doesn't know quite what to make of stuck-in-the-middle man, Dismukes, but Star Wars breakout John Boyega does his best to help the character straddle the line of black skin and blue uniform, with a subtle and nuanced exploration of inner tension.
Aglgee Smith (Earth to Echo), Jacob Latimore (Sleight) Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Anthony Mackie (Avengers: Infinity War), Kaitlyn Dever (Last Man Standing) and Hannah Murray (Game of Thrones) are all impeccably talented at generating the fear and tension levels of actual horror movie victims - while also turning each of their respective characters into interesting and/or sympathetic characters in rapid time leading up to the calamity. Without the high intensity generated by the cast, Detroit would be a by-the-numbers biopic; however, the performers give it their all, and the results show.
In the end, Detroit may be coming out in the summer season, but it has awards season contender written all over it. This is truly affecting filmmaking, from a director who refuses to back away from peering into the abyss of American socio-political turmoil - or allow audiences to do the same. This is definitely a movie that will make you feel - just not one that will make you feel good, in any sense of the word.
Detroit hit limited release on July 28; it will be in theaters in wide release on August 4th. It is 2 hours and 23 minutes long, and is Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language.