Film Review: Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t hold back in Detroit (USA, 2017)

Kathryn Bigelow has already proven a competent and imaginative voice when tackling tough, complex subjects featuring the kind of gutsy brutality that doesn’t need excessive gore or sci-fi elements. She’s much more concerned with real-world situations, exploring human nature as a function of and reaction to extreme pressure; in some ways, it’s similar to the approach Peter Berg has taken with his last three films; although Berg seems to fall short when it comes to character. The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty were both great, thought-provoking films, both of which made enough of an impact to position Bigelow as one of the most anticipated directors of the past decade, for both film buffs and people who usually don’t give much thought to the director of a film.

Of course Detroit is going to be met with similar levels of anticipation, and everyone (at least those who haven’t seen it yet; this is one of those movies Australia is far behind on) is curious to see how Bigelow addresses race relations in 1967 with the historic Detroit riots, especially with writer Mark Boal – who handled the script of the two aforementioned films – by her side. Thankfully, the film is bold, defined by the same fearlessness as Bigelow’s recent hits with an adventurous but appropriately, almost documentary-like, scaled-back tone. This is furthered by the use of real footage intercut between scenes, barging into some of the most crucial scenes to highlight the scale and helplessness of the situation

Though Bigelow makes a crucial error from the start; she doesn’t contextualise the riots well, mistakenly thinking that a brief animated montage before the film will suffice for any lead-up. Instead, we’re to believe the shutting down of an unlicensed club was the final straw which led to the riots (it was but one of many) with Kathryn much more interested in the throbbing heatwave of racial tension that ensued.

The audience is thrown into the thick of it quite early on in the film, with a steady escalation of the differences individual policemen – the most notable of whom is Will Poulter as Philip Krauss – have with the “riot”, which until later is treated as a united force; a ball of frustration fueled by fear, rage and oppression. Some may say certain parallels can be drawn between the bare bones of these riots and more current happenings, like Black Lives Matter and the very topical issue of excessive police force when it comes to the black community. This is evident in a scene where Poulter’s character chases down a fleeing looter and unloads a shotgun shell into his back, for which he is vaguely reprimanded by his superiors.

An all-black R&B group, The Dramatics, are introduced shortly after this and, after being unwillingly caught up in the rioting, lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) end up at the now famous Algiers Motel. This is the epicentre of the film, Bigelow using the vague events which transpired here as a microcosm for the larger workings of this extreme friction within America and the severe lack of communication that drives it, along with the emotions, the pain, the antagonism (sometimes mutual) and the paranoia involved.

Reed and Temple befriend two young white women (Kaityln Dever and Hannah Murray) who then introduce them to their friends, one of whom (Carl Cooper, played brilliantly but briefly by Jason Mitchell) decides it’d be a good idea to fire blanks from a starter pistol in the direction of a group of policemen, which includes black security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega).

Boyega is tasked with showing shades of helplessness and suppressed anger as he accompanies a detachment to the hotel, which includes and is lead by Krauss who quickly shoots and kills Carl without knowing he was the one firing the blanks in the first place. The rest of the tenants, including the two white women, are lined up in the motel’s narrow hallway and essentially terrorised until a confession is made.

Now what exactly went on as this real-life event occurred is not fully known, a fact admitted at the end of the film. This gives a little room for Bigelow and Boal to take certain liberties with the story, but they never overdo or overplay their hands, rather honouring the nuances of all characters involved. One might think that Krauss’ overbearing and volatile approach to these “suspects” may be slightly exaggerated, but it’s a nice platform for Poulter to show off his acting chops. The rising 24 year old star, who only a few years ago played the incredibly dorky kid in We’re the Millers, dominates the cast as far as acting goes; Krauss is genuinely terrifying and unstoppable, from his elevated tone to the physicality with which he looms over each and every one of those lined against the wall.

Thanks to Poulter and the other actors involved, each scene shot within this motel is virtually sweating with fear and uncertainty. You’ll hear it in the audible gasps around you in the cinema along with the grimaces and maybe even the anger, all emotions felt clearly and strongly thanks to Bigelow’s immersive and impactful approach.

And that’s really where Detroit’s biggest strength lies. The emotion is palpable as Bigelow doesn’t hold back in showing us the senselessness of police brutality and racism while ignoring the dichotomous “good versus evil” narrative lesser directors would be tempted by. For that, this may be her finest work to date.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Detroit is out now in cinemas across Australia.