Film Review: Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ explores decades-old racial tensions

It’s fair to suggest that American cinema has missed Kathryn Bigelow quite a bit in the five years since she released her last film, the critically successful and hyper-controversial Zero Dark Thirty. Now, she and screenwriter Mark Boal have returned with an American horror story that you’re not likely to see on FX: Detroit.

To be frank, this film is super hard to write about, especially when you’re a rando white dude on the internet with a beard who is pretty much indistinguishable from the next. And I think some of my unease about this film comes from that position: I can see how absolutely inadequate my voice is on the subject matter of this film, and on the representation of both the events portrayed in the film and the men and women who endured them. I can only really come at this as a fan of Bigelow’s work, as someone who withstood the backlash towards Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, and I found it to be unfocused, poorly shot and lesser than a lot of her other work.

Detroit tells the story of one evening during the Detroit riots of 1967, where three black men were killed by police at the Algiers Hotel, all because a patron inside the hotel shot off a starter pistol at the assembled lawmen and National Guard down the street. We experience much of this from two perspectives: From Melvin Dismukes’ (John Boyega), a steelworker and security guard who’s tasked with guarding a grocery store from rioters, who ultimately winds up being a silent a victim and a witness to the horrible events within the Algiers; and from “Cleveland” Larry Reed’s (Algee Smith), a singer with the Motor City-based Dramatics who winds up hanging out at the Algiers after a breakthrough concert of theirs is cancelled due to the rioting. There, a man (Jason Mitchell), in the midst of partying with his friends, fires off the starter pistol that caused the whole mess, and three horrible racist cops storm in, led by Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). Krauss had been cited earlier in the day for murdering a man in cold blood, but let back out onto the streets due to the need for police on the streets. He then proceeds to unload a cavalcade of hatred upon the patrons of the hotel, and it’s most definitely hard to watch.

That torturous interrogation makes up much of the runtime, and it loops other characters — National Guardsmen, a Marine vet (Anthony Mackie), and two white girls from Ohio — into an ever-expanding tableau of horrors, starting with the severe beating given to each of the men and coalescing into the “killing game” that ultimately leads to some stupid and disgusting tragedy. It seems obvious that this is what drew Bigelow to the project, and it’s a spectacularly crafted sequence with an unrelenting tension, full of uncompromising pain and a horrible sadness beneath it all. I can’t help but shake the fact that Poulter might be miscast, as his mere presence caused my screening to laugh grimly whenever he uttered something longer than three syllables, and the third-act appearance of John Krasinski is so distracting it completely shatters the moment-to-moment verisimilitude of the film, but the rest of the cast is pretty good, Boyega and Smith being the ultimate standouts in a crowded field of fine performances. Yet there’s a painful distance between the filmmakers and their subjects, and it’s hard not to see where that empathy has its limits. Bigelow, per usual, is sort of caught between authority and rebellion (though much of the latter isn’t present here), and she gives an uncomfortable understanding to each of the police officers, perhaps in a way that’s meant to suggest the banality of evil, but it doesn’t do so effectively.

Boal’s screenplay is poorly structured (one wonders what it would have looked like as a 90-minute bleak-as-fuck horror film), and the scattershot narrative proves too much for Bigelow to handle when there’s just merely injustice, not outright horror, afoot. There’s a reason why her most recent and hyper-acclaimed work revolves around a central character, such as Jeremy Renner’s crazed bomb squad tech in The Hurt Locker or Jessica Chastain’s laser-focused CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty. Even though there’s not meant to be one here — there’s a tableau of characters who are each meant to play their own part in Racism’s Vulgar Pageant, and the events themselves are supposed to be the focus rather than any given arc — it still gives the movie a lax focus that hurts it in the bookend sections of the film, and outwardly prevents us from connecting with any of the cast on an emotional level. And it has, at times, the air of a forced apology, brought to you by the investigations conducted by Congress in the wake of Zero Dark Thirty’s release, as if someone has something to prove about what truly evil torture really looks like to the naysayers in the audience.

Greengrassian shaky-cam rules the day here, which is to be expected when you hire the Bourne maestro and social realist’s favorite cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, to shoot your film, but it doesn’t work, and Ackroyd’s stylistic transitions between the sections of story feel like they could have been shot by three different people. It’s ugly and empty, and it’s never as immersive as it wants to be; in fact, it does the opposite for much of the runtime, in that it actively helps to shatter one’s suspense of disbelief by making the camera work feel glaringly obvious. There’s none of the artful verite here that defined Bigelow’s most recent work, and despite all of her efforts here to contrast civil unrest in the US with the actual honest-to-god urban warfare that she’s predicted in those films, it winds up just falling a bit flat. Though her staging is as interesting and clearly defined as in her earlier work, it suffers a bit from a geographic vagueness — the Algiers is ultimately small when she needs it to be claustrophobic, yet it becomes labyrinthian when characters attempt to make escapes or are dragged off into different rooms — and I guess that’s partially on Boal for inventing rooms when he needs them.

Let’s be clear and frank — there are better perspectives from other critics to seek out on this particular film than mine. But for what it’s worth, Detroit is an interesting film, though not nearly as compelling or focused as her last work. Detroit may ultimately cast a negative light on Mark Boal’s screenwriting talent, and more than anything else it made me want to go back and read his screenplays for Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty to see how they transitioned from page to screen, to see how much of their success was directly caused by the skill of one of America’s greatest living action directors. I just wish they’d had the focus to see it through in a compelling fashion. So much of this film works that it’s impossible to dismiss, and the riotous anger boiling beneath its surface is both just and necessary, but Detroit never manages to be bigger than the sum of its parts nor, as in the articles I’ve cited above, makes a compelling case for its existence for any audience.

Featured ‘Detroit’ photo by Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures via AP. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.