The saddest thing about Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit is how a 50-year old story based on a true incident based on horrific racial prejudice still rings true to this very day. That is downright chilling. For those who say we are moving forward and progressive, look no further than this film as proof that while we may have made some strides over the years, we are nowhere near where we should be as a nation. On that political note, let’s get crackin’.
Detroit tells the story of several different African-American men (and two caucasian women) who all end up converging at the swingin’ Algiers Motel on one horrifying night. Fred (Jacob Latimore) is rushing to the concert hall to join his musician friend Larry (Algee Smith) minutes before his big break is shut down by the presence of the riots, security officer Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is preparing for extra hours to guard the store from looters and three police officers – Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor) are out patrolling at the time. When a toy gun goes off at the motel, the police leap into action and the whole thing turns into an ugly stand-off inside the motel that gets uglier by the minute.
This film is difficult to watch and I will not beat around the bush by jumping right to that point. That being said, it is a very well-made film as Bigelow has devised another fascinating look at a real historical event similar to the way in which she did with Zero Dark Thirty. Many of the characters she utilizes in the movie are flawed but not all of them are completely evil or completely pure. Sure, there are some bad apples in the bunch but she balances it out enough with nuanced, fully-realized characters that it never feels gratuitous or preachy. The only criticism I will point out in this film that keeps it from being perfect is its length. Usually, I have no problem with long movies but the film goes on for quite a long while after the big stand-off and the third act starts to sag a bit as the movie seems to end a few times. That being said, the whole film was rather harrowing and powerful.
You end up spending most of the time in the film in a small location with the same actors so they must be a powerful string of performers to keep it afloat. Luckily, that’s what we get here. Will Poulter stands out the most to me here, especially with his first visible appearance on-screen (to me, anyway) being his silly comedic turn in We’re the Millers. Even when he starred in The Revenant, it wasn’t as complete of a turn as this one was by a long shot. Poulter is chilling; his arching eyebrows do some of the heavy lifting as does his hushed tone and constant self-reassurance. Joining him are the other two cops played by Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole who also do some impressive work though Poulter still steals the show. Jacob Latimore and Algee Smith are our real focal points in this ensemble movie and both of them play the whole thing as very genuine and naturalistic. It’s really easy to sympathize with them. The last performer I want to point out is John Boyega, who is playing a very complicated character. Boyega is not necessarily on either side of the fence (though he certainly doesn’t approve of the extreme measures taken by the police) and seems conflicted by the whole ordeal because of his profession. He underplays the part and shows real range in what might be his finest on-screen performance yet.
The majority of the film comes from the main section in the motel so I would be remiss in spoiling any of that but I will add that the stuff that comes before and after that scene is not QUITE as strong. The film presents a sickening world-view at some points and we gets some rather frustrating revelations that come out of the actions of three racist police officers. The film also takes the time to explain the systemic reasons behind these types of actions rather than just the ‘all police are evil’ approach. In fact, the movie makes sure that it is definitively saying all cops are not evil with several of its characters and reactions from other police towards the titular three in the movie. We also get that on the flip side with Boyega’s complicated character.
A very powerful film indeed even if it is slightly uneven towards the end, it packs one hell of a punch and makes for an intense and frightening true story.
RATING: **** ½
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)