UK Release Date: 25th August 2017
Runtime: 143 minutes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: John Boyega, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Hannah Murray, Jason Mitchell
Synopsis: In the midst of racially-charged rioting on the streets of Detroit, a group of black men are held captive by a trio of white cops who carry out horrific brutality while searching for a gun they believe to be a threat.
America is on a knife-edge. There’s a right-wing demagogue in the White House and black people are taking to the streets in an attempt to defend their right to be treated equally. It’s right into the middle of that powder keg that Kathryn Bigelow steps with Detroit, which is a searing drama that shines its spotlight on a shameful event in the country’s history. It’s part historical drama, part courtroom procedural and part intense horror movie, with an undeniable impact. Bigelow can’t be faulted for ambition, though the film does falter as if struggling with the enormity of the material.
Detroit is in the grip of rioting during the summer of 1967, with National Guard and police trying to regain order. When rioting forces an early end to a Motown music night, singer Larry (Algee Smith) and buddy Fred (Jacob Latimore) decide to hole up at a party in the Algiers Motel. Some mucking about with a starter pistol leads authorities to the building, including security guard Melvin (John Boyega). The police, led by brutal racist Krauss (Will Poulter) quickly establish a horrific interrogation in order to track down the gun they believe was being fired at them. Soon, bodies start to pile up and the consequences look set to be enormous.
There’s no doubting Kathryn Bigelow’s eye for horrific verisimilitude in Detroit, with the director transforming Motor City into a near-apocalyptic nightmare as looters fill the streets, bullets fly and even a charming evening of musical entertainment is forced to end early. Barry Ackroyd’s handheld camera plunges the audience straight into the heart of the horrific middle section. We’re so close that we can almost smell the blood, sweat and fear of the central characters. The centrepiece interrogation sequence is a masterful suspense film in its own right and could comfortably be held up against any horror movie from the last few years for sheer, white-knuckle terror.
At the centre of this sequence is Will Poulter, in his best performance to date. After impressing as a meek youngster in The Revenant and as the comedic heart of We’re the Millers, he descends immediately into darkness with Detroit. In one of his first scenes, he shoots down a looter in cold blood and he wastes no time in establishing himself as the cold-hearted mastermind behind a brutal interrogation game when the action moves to the Algiers Motel. The way he makes Machiavellian calculations as the situation appears to spiral out of control is chilling in its simplicity and Poulter is believable in the loathsome role. If there’s any justice, awards recognition beckons.
The film is less sure-footed with its other characters. Both John Boyega and Algee Smith are positioned as potential entry points and protagonists early on, but neither gets the full focus of the script and therefore both of their stories feel somewhat undercooked. Neither is able to move completely to the fore and both often feel like they have been sidelined by the plot. Mark Boal’s script also falls apart once the dust has settled and rushes through some half-baked courtroom material that lacks all of the cinematic and journalistic rigour of what came before it, as if the film is hurrying to a conclusion after two hours of patient build-up.
Bigelow is a visual filmmaker, first and foremost, and so excels when Detroit is at its most visceral. She finds depth in the actions and reactions of characters that then pours out of the film like blood from an open wound once the tension dissipates. In an era where racial tensions are as prevalent as they have been since the 1960s, this is a film that feels vital, urgent and incredibly important. For two thirds of its running time, it lives up to that billing with sublime filmmaking craft and expert storytelling, only to do the importance of the story a disservice with an utterly wayward third act.
Pop or Poop?
Kathryn Bigelow’s best qualities are on show with Detroit, which has all of the component parts of a genuinely thrilling film with real political resonance. And for two hours, that’s exactly what it is, ratcheting up the tension and making the most of an ensemble firing on all cylinders. It falls apart a little in the final third, where it becomes a faded newspaper clipping rather than a blockbuster front page editorial, but the power of its dramatic centrepiece cannot be overstated.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.