Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s latest film takes place in 1967 Detroit when race relations between the African-American inhabitants and the predominantly white police force had reached fever pitch, leading to chaos in the streets, widespread looting and the destruction of buildings, leading to the National Guard being brought in alongside notorious police brutality. Amidst the chaos, members of the Motown group The Dynamics spend the night at the Algiers Motel where shots from a starting pistol are fired, leading to the police arriving in full force, soon resulting in a handful of shootings and death. The inhabitants are held at gunpoint, the officers demanding to know where the gun is, playing brutal mind games with them and subjecting them to harsh racial abuse and torment.
Much like The Hurt Locker, Detroit once again proves that Kathryn Bigelow is the master of tension building and atmosphere as the pivotal scenes that take place in the motel are impressively compelling and there is a constant air of unpredictability; we never know just what will happen next. She effectively establishes a claustrophobic environment, knowing to keep the cameras tight enough on the actors’ faces, and the constant handheld camerawork helps greatly in making us feel as though we’re actually there, keeping up the uncomfortable, unpredictable atmosphere. And in addition, the violent scenes are remarkably bold; Bigelow doesn’t hold back in depicting the brutality of the armed enforcers and the scenes of the riotous Detroit streets genuinely feel like pandemonium, with constant shouting, screaming and an air of dangerous unpredictability.
As Bigelow’s frequent writing collaborator, Mark Boal delivers another worthy script as all the dialogue hits the ear perfectly, his writing effortlessly allows us to get involved in the onscreen events and the story itself is important and ideally suited for a feature film such as this. It has a clear structure, starting with the police raid on the unlicensed club which led to the days of rioting, alongside photographs and footage of the real historical events, creating a pseudo-documentary feel, which is a notoriously clichéd thing to do but it actually slots into the film very well and reminds us that all of this did indeed happen. Despite a bit of a shaky start with the opening raid, the first act lays the foundation really well as it lets us get to know the main characters but it doesn’t go overboard; it effectively shows us what they’re all about, including Officer Krauss’ tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, without lingering too much and creating a really solid, watchable opening.
What’s impressive is that although, as the closing text tells us, this is a somewhat fictionalized account since no-one truly knows what actually happened, I never once doubted the historical accuracy and the film is compelling, smartly written and well researched enough that it appears to be a realistic depiction of what happened. The film does well in making us more aware of this notorious event that took place at a tumultuous time but it is never preachy or hagiographic; there are atrocities committed by both sides, highlighted (to me, anyway) when the rioters start attacking the firefighters.
Performances are top notch across the board; in particular Algee Smith, who is more or less the main character of the film as Larry, lead singer of The Dynamics, puts in an impressively layered performance as he is able to be cool, charismatic and easy-going in the early scenes at the motel where he and his friend enjoy their downtime, while also showing genuine fear and hopelessness when he is made to suffer during the nightmarish ordeal. His character makes a considerable change throughout the movie as the incident leads him to abandon his quest for stardom and to be closer to the community and the church. Also, John Boyega plays an interesting part as Melvin Dismukes, a private security guard who gets involved with the events at the motel; at times, he is a calm, authoritative voice of reason but there’s an uncomfortable moral grey area surrounding his character as he is complicit in the horrific events and allying himself with the National Guardsmen always gets us to question just whether he’s doing the right thing or not. Boyega plays the part solidly but is somewhat ill-served by the script because I don’t think his particular character was ever properly explored and Boyega plays second or third fiddle alongside the other characters.
And lastly, Will Poulter is a bona fide scene-stealer and commands the screen with every scene that he’s in; despite apparently always looking like he’s twelve years old, his trigger-happy police officer character is relentless, calculating, brutal and menacing without ever being a two-dimensional caricature of nastiness, as would be so easy to do in a film like this. Officer Krauss has that sense of misguided righteousness, believing that what he’s doing is perfectly just and legal, and Poulter’s mature, compelling performance just goes to show how great an actor he’s becoming, as evidenced before with The Revenant.
Detroit does peter out a bit towards the end though because after the police have demanded to know the location of the gun for the umpteenth time, the film kind of goes around in circles and it doesn’t quite maintain the same level of interest or tension that was established in the first half. The film’s third act focuses on the aftermath of the incident, tying up the characters’ stories and showing us the court cases that followed, but the pacing of these scenes is a bit too sluggish and could have been trimmed down a bit. It becomes somewhat apparent that Bigelow needed some reigning in and, although the film is still great as it is, Detroit could have been made just that bit more compact because with its 140 minute runtime, it occasionally rambles and loses some of its power.
Also, I though there was a slight narrative issue because I was confused as to why the motel residents didn’t simply tell the officers about the starting pistol that started the whole affair, admitting that that was the gun they were looking for. It’s mentioned in the the film that the officers came to the wrong house but I couldn’t help but feel that they could realistically have ended it then and there, since many of the characters were present when Carl pulled out the gun that they first thought was real . . .
Elsewhere, the production design is very good as the construction of an almost war-torn Detroit is bold and shocking and the first half of the film has a great soul/Motown soundtrack (“Nowhere to Run” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas making another appearance this year, having been included on the Baby Driver soundtrack) as well as a fine accompanying score from James Newton Howard. Plus, Algee Smith has a wonderful singing voice.