Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski and Anthony Mackie
Release Date: Out Now
Very few directors create tension quite like Kathryn Bigelow. The Hurt Locker, for example, takes a calm, almost serene look at the hellishness of combat and is taut with suspense from second one. This is extrapolated to its logical conclusion in Detroit. It is a truly immersive and uncomfortable watch. Tension builds early and doesn’t release until well into the final act. There is an intense and unshakeable sense of dread drawing you in; something awful is going to happen.
It’s just a matter of when.
As a result, watching Detroit leaves an impact akin to getting struck in the face. Even if you are expecting it, you aren’t quite prepared for how it hits you, and indeed, the anticipation makes it worse. It is powerful and sudden, and though the moment itself is over quickly, it will stay with you for quite a while afterwards.
When the Detroit Police Department raid an unlicensed bar in the middle of the night during a homecoming for black veterans, onlookers begin to protest the arrests. Citizens yell at the police, begin throwing objects at moving police vehicles, and eventually small scuffles begin to break out. Over the course of a few hours, this escalates into a full blown riot across much of the city.
The local governor calls in the military and the National Guard, and patrolmen are on active duty constantly. Among them is Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), who is kept on active duty while waiting on a decision from his superiors.
Trying to make it to work is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who goes from one job in a factory to another as a private security guard, working to protect a local store from looting during the riots. Meanwhile, Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is making his way back from a cancelled performance with his R&B group The Dramatics along with his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore).
They book a room in the local Motel, The Algiers, to pass time until the morning when they can get home safely. There they encounter a range of people including a war veteran (Anthony Mackie) and two young white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever). During the night, attention is drawn to the hotel, and it is stormed by the police and some guardsmen, with the reluctant Dismukes also investigating.
As mentioned previously, the prevailing feeling while watching Detroit is a feeling of dread. Things start off bad, and you’d be hard pressed to find a point in the film where the situation isn’t actively worsening. It doesn’t fetter itself with twists, instead presenting events as clearly as can be, and delicately foreshadows the awfulness yet to come. As a result, your horror grows with every scene as you figure out what might happen next, often just before it happens.
That is not to say that the effectiveness of the happenings playing out on screen are dulled by the foreshadowing. Indeed, it is a credit to the performances of the cast that you instead hope that your predictions are false, that it doesn’t play out as you expect. The supporting cast round out characters that, admittedly, would otherwise be slightly flat. Notable in this regard are Murray and Dever, getting an unexpected first hand taste of the bigotry and corruption faced by young black men every day (both then, and now).
Even stronger are Smith and Latimore, two young men who are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are spot on as young, talented, innocent young men who have to survive an awful situation, and they have you rooting for them even when their position seems hopeless.
In addition, Smith is an immensely talented singer, which adds to some key scenes.
The most noteworthy performances of the film though, are those of Poulter and Boyega, not least because their accents are indistinguishable from their American co-stars. Boyega is perfect as a good man, caught up in something he knows is wrong, but powerless to stop what is unfolding in front of him. He acts as an anchor, almost an audience surrogate, affected by the same quiet horror as the audience. He is understated, nuanced, and when his character finally emotes with vigor, it really drives home the gravity of the situation.
Poulter, on the other hand, gives a tour de force performance as a sinister patrolman assuming control of a situation and steadily twisting it until there is no coming back from it. He menaces, threatens, and generally revels in terrorising the people at his mercy. It can be hard to evoke true hate for a character, but Poulter is genuinely detestable. This is an early contender for a Best Supporting Actor nod at next year’s Academy Awards.
The cast is not the only strong point of the film though. The choice of music places us in the time of the riots, while evoking a bittersweet, almost melancholy mood juxtaposed against the horror on screen. The dialogue is realistic, not falling into the trap of becoming too hammy.
The cinematography is focused, yet almost anxious, matching the palpable and distinct discomfort of all involved. It twitches near constantly, picking up small details that build upon the ever growing dread. Similarly, the editing is very solid, providing some effective cuts, with the likes of a sudden jump to a car door slamming elevated to be as potent and sudden as a gunshot.
Of course, it is by no means perfect. As mentioned previously, some characters aren’t as fleshed out as others, which would not have held up nearly as well with a less talented cast. The long running time paired with the unrelenting tension make for an almost exhausting watch, though that is admittedly not necessarily a negative.
Lastly, it would also be remiss not to mention that this is a chiefly white creative team dealing with an important tale of the powerlessness of African Americans in the seventies that continues even to the present day. The film presents the events as they are, not fettered with subjectivity, and while this is admirable, it results in a lack of context to the evil of institutional racism. Krauss and his cohorts are obviously despicable, but Bigelow doesn’t outright condemn them.
This does not necessarily weaken or invalidate the film nor the feeling it attempts to get across, but it is certainly something to keep in mind while viewing. Again, whether or not this is an issue is down to individual opinion, but on reflection I personally found it led to a slight disconnect between the film’s intentions, and the actions it presented.
All in all, Detroit finds the mark. It is an intense experience, with themes as applicable today as they were then. The physical closeness with which it details the events is powerful, even in spite of the emotional distance. It is certainly not flawless, but it is potent, timely, and above all, essential.
Written by Will Whitty