I get the feeling that Kathryn Bigelow is growing tired with narrative films. Despite setting the bar for action with Point Break, she’s recently been taking on real-life storytelling with a journalistic lens, like the perfect The Hurt Locker, the cold and factual Zero Dark Thirty, and the literal piece of journalism she conducted on the second season of Serial. However, these all feel like they served as practice for Detroit, a film that may not be as perfect or as thrilling as The Hurt Locker, nor as tactically cold as the docudrama Zero Dark Thirty, but is no less as remarkable. Bigelow blends narrative and journalism in a taut, depressing thriller about what happens to society when we allow fear to mix with our own worst desires.
Three days into the Detroit Riots, tensions in the city are high. The National Guard has entered the city, the police are understaffed, and the citizens are on edge. No one knows who to trust and who will bring them harm. A large cast of characters are introduced in the first act, including security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who wants to make sure everyone will make it home alive and unharmed, regardless of sides, members of The Dramatics Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore), Ohio party girls Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Katilyn Dever), and a squad car consisting of Officers Flynn (Ben O’Toole), Demens (Jack Reynor), and the sociopath Krauss (Will Poulter). When an angry young man in the hotel (Jason Mitchell) gets the insanely stupid idea of firing a starter pistol out of the window of the Algiers Motel as a prank, the resulting chaos brings everyone together at the hotel for one terrifying evening that will leave three African Americans dead, nine others beaten, and everyone changed forever.
There is no one in the world who can direct like Kathryn Bigelow. She has the ability to create gripping stories that feel alive and visceral, be they boring or ridiculous. Each frame is a cinéma vérité cornucopia. It’s perfectly directed, hearkening an immediacy often missing from films of this kind. The editing cuts between real clips and the story, blurring the lines of reality and fiction, and keeping things moving at a frantic pace, even if it is too long (more on that in a minute). And the cinematography is impeccable. Barry Ackroyd’s camera evokes the heat and fog of a city burning to the ground, literally and metaphorically, and jumbles with a shaky-cam ferocity that never feels forced (like Captain Phillips) and instead shows the literal uneasiness of society. It’s easily one of the best directing jobs of the year, and she brings everything together into a shocking, efficient final product.
The film’s issues arise as you begin to break down the film’s structure. You see, the first two thirds of this film are truly stunning, and amongst the best work of the year. The first thirty minutes in particular are a marvel to behold. The film opens with an animated sequence that breaks down the fifty-year history of the city of Detroit’s racial issues – an influx of African-Americans escaping lynchings in the South and seeking jobs in the North invade the cities, only for the cities’ white populations to move to the suburbs, leaving the cities overwhelmingly black in the face of a police force afraid of the poor and under-educated new populous, resulting in aggressive tactics. This all explodes in the film’s opening scenes, which are truly a wonder to witness. The riots began when the police invaded a blind pig (a speakeasy) and broke up the welcome-home party of a Vietnam vet. They’re perfectly in their right to do so – the blind pig is illegal, and when they first start shooing people out, the film doesn’t really portray anyone as in the wrong. The detective leading the raid is black, and he jokes with his informant and even a couple of the disgruntled guests. However, things begin to go wrong as they have to take them out the front door. Seriously understaffed for this raid, they start calling in more and more police officers and beat cops to help get the people into cars. And that’s when things start to go wrong. The police come in too hot, the crowds start to demand an answer to “What did they do?” (a truly resonant question to this day), and as billy clubs come out and bottles start getting thrown, 300 years’ worth of history explodes in the streets. It’s well shot, it’s smart, and it’s the sort of epic, nuanced take we want from a film like this.
However, nuance is the key word for this film. True stories like this aren’t the same as archetypal films like Baby Driver or High Noon; there’s no such thing as an all-good or all bad person. We need complex characters, like those cops and those citizens seen in the opening scenes, who make mistakes and have decisions that have impact one way or the other. There’s nothing compelling in watching an all-good or all-bad character, and that’s the trap this film falls into as it goes. I would rather see police officers like the put-upon chief or the flawed detectives than whatever stereotypical creepy racist rapist Ben O’Toole is playing (no matter how historically accurate that portrayal is, based on witness reports). Furthermore, if every other character is nuanced, it becomes a bit unbelievable that the only racist cops in the city all happened to be put into the same police car. I’m not asking for much; as a baseline, I just want every character to be as rounded as Phillip Krauss, a character who is so far beyond the typical racist (although he’s that too) that he goes into the realm of sadist. By the film’s conclusion, the film is no longer interested in three-dimensional portrayals, instead devolving into an on-the-nose courtroom scene that, while also accurate, and certainly reflective of recent news, loses its emphasis with John Conyers, Jr. delivering an unambiguously blunt “moral.” A good twenty of the last forty minutes of this movie could be cut, and it would only serve to benefit the film as a whole.
However, while the first act is the strongest, and the final act is the weakest, the middle act delivers the heart of this film, and is above all else the one you’ll remember from this film. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were never interested in creating a film about the Detroit Riots – they wanted to use it as a setting to tell the story of the Algiers Motel, and to use this to show the audience what happens when fear takes over. You see, when you have a terrifying reality, and you mix in fear, true horror can emerge, be it in the form of a riot or in the form of an execution. It was certainly fear of the police and a desire to fight back that led Mitchell’s Carl to fire his starter pistol out the window. And it was fear that led the National Guard to invade the motel with the aid of three unhinged twenty-somethings. And it was certainly fear and ignorance that led the young men to act our their basest instincts on twelve young people, all because the idea of interracial dating and the threat of death lingered over the room like the fog in the streets. This is the fear that Bigelow wants us to understand – the fear that African-Americans feel everyday, and the fear that leads otherwise goodhearted people to sit back while completely terrified evil people act out atrocities in the name of “safety.” And while not everything works during this truly frightening second half – a certain plot point involving Reynor’s cop is a bit too ridiculous to take seriously, and the dialogue written for Murray’s Julie Ann is often terrible – the tension that Bigelow has made an art form makes it a marvel to behold. What’s even more frightening is that, if you do even a fraction of the research Bigelow and Boal did on this film, you would know that a lot of it is accurate. Thanks to the copious amounts of documents and witness statements that exist, the duo sticks to the facts as often as possible, making the truth even more frightening than fiction. In fact, they’re so desperately loyal to the facts, they issue an apology in the credits for any details they were forced to take dramatic license with. The idea of filmmakers apologizing for lying to us is so refreshing that it both makes you want to give them bonus points and cower in fear at the realization that a lot of what you just saw did happen, even if smaller touches were fictionalized.
Due to the film’s ensemble nature, it makes it difficult for particular performances to stand out. Certain actors like Boyega, Reynor, and O’Toole don’t get as big a chance to shine due to their desire to let the story be the star. Other actors make the most out of smaller roles and cameos, like Laz Alonso as John Conyers, Anthony Mackie as a heroically tenacious victim, the great Samira Wiley as a hotel clerk, and the aforementioned Mitchell, who gets his chance to shine with a wonderful monologue before he sets everything in motion. And while I had issues with her dialogue, Murray is quite good as Julie Ann, despite being outshone by the smaller-but-stronger Katilyn Dever. As for the “leads” of the film, Algee Smith is great as Larry Reed, lead tenor for The Dramatics and the film’s most charismatic character, while Jacob Latimore wonderfully redeems himself after Collateral Beauty as Reed’s more introverted friend. The duo are the film’s heart and soul, and they also speak to Bigelow’s talent, as the film delivers some of the most blatant instances of foreshadowing in film history, only to completely subvert those clues and go another direction. It’s refreshing to see a film that refuses to be paint-by-numbers. However, while Smith and Latimore certainly shine, nobody in this film can hold a candle to Poulter. Will Poulter broke out with memorable roles in Son of Rambow and We’re the Millers, stealing both films with his charm and charisma. He brings that exact charm and charisma to his performance as Krauss, and I mean that in all the wrong ways. His Krauss is a sociopath, through and through, and Poulter gets the most out of each twisted line he delivers. In fact, Poulter proves his skill as an actor by doing the near-unthinkable: he takes a two-dimensional role and fills in the third dimension with just his acting. I don’t know many other actors who could accomplish that. There really isn’t a weak link in the entire cast, although I do have one small gripe. While his performance is fine, it’s a little distracting when John Krasinski shows up near the end as the Union lawyer. It’s supposed to be the film’s emotional climax, but all I could think to myself was “Why is Jim there? Why is he so awful?” It’s a small role, they could have gotten away with casting an unknown.
However, despite my quibbles with the film, I can’t help but be amazed. Bigelow is a true master, and watching her work in any capacity is an absolute joy. This is a smart, intelligent film that will scare you to your core. It’s what I call top-down filmmaking, from the acting to the cinematography to the editing to the script. It’s a film that makes you think just as much as it makes you feel, and as you leave, all you can ask yourself is “Why?” Why would someone do these things? Why do we allow society to make these decisions based on fear? Why can’t we be better? Detroit doesn’t answer any of these questions, but by asking them, maybe one day we will be able to.