Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)
Synopsis: Detroit’s harrowing depiction of brutality and oppression opened my eyes to the banality of racism and why minorities remain distrustful of the police. It will garner oscar nominations. Despite Bigelow’s visual style and bold performances from Will Poulter and John Boyega, Detroit overextends itself into a third act. The film sadly becomes a diluted true crime documentary whose content belongs in the end credits. Once the plot unravels, Detroit groans under its 2 and a half hour run time with characters that are either underdeveloped or extras overstaying their welcome. Fortunately the film’s earlier acts save it from joining this summer’s flops.
Only a war film director of Kathryn Bigelow’s stature could have made Detroit. Once the race riots began in 1967 Detroit, like Charlottesville today, symbolised America tearing itself apart. The film focuses on a few square miles of the city, but an apocalyptic sense of the country’s own struggles with race is ever present, acting as a stark reminder of what happens when oppression boils over. Bigelow’s intensely intimate documentary style quietly builds up the fraught atmosphere by grounding the story at the human level, as the rising tensions overwhelm the everyday lives of African Americans across Detroit. Once the riots spill over Detroit descends into a war zone where Bigelow’s previous work in Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker come into the fore. When the camera returns to the wreckage wrought by the riots, citizens eye you suspiciously behind rubble or stand armed in alcoves. One scene could be a convoy in Iraq or Afghanistan as a police cruiser rolls quietly through a street in the dead of night while shop fronts engulfed by flame light its way, causing the children stood nearby to look like silhouettes. Against this maelstrom Detroit switches focus to the Algiers motel, a sea of calm where Detroit sheds its docudrama skin and becomes a horror film.
Believing that the Algiers hotel is hiding a sniper, both the Detroit police and national guard arrive, headed by policeman Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter) and his fellow patrolmen. Indifferent to the young boys and men around them, the patrolmen see the African Americans cowering before them as criminals who have yet to confess or subhumans who they can pin their heinous acts on. The horror is the indifference the white authorities show. Both the military and state troopers leave the Detroit Police Department to torture the unfortunate people within the motel annex. Will Poulter’s baby face combined with his seriousness brings a callous naïvity to his actions, making him all the more monstrous as he tortures and bungles and tortures some more. Krauss’ opposite is Melvin Desmukes (John Boyega), a black security guard whose sense of duty, however misplaced, leads him to the motel to look for the sniper.
Initially Krauss and Melvin are polar opposites as shown by the trailer. Krauss is ruthless and obsessed with finding the sniper while Melvin is torn between appeasing the police officers and saving the young men and women trapped in the motel. Instead Krauss and his fellow patrolmen envelope the motel scenes.Their desperation to find the sniper feeds their sadism, plunging the viewer into a stupor of howling intensity as tragedy slowly arrives. Bigelow so gleefully documents Krauss and company’s misconduct that Melvin becomes a noisy neighbour who slinks away when it all becomes too much hassle. It is unfortunate that Melvin is pushed aside in the motel scenes as Boyega brings a realism to the character, portraying him in earlier moments as a hardworking level headed mean trying to do right for those around him.
Melvin’s scattered arc, which pings around like a misfired pinball after the standoff at the Algiers motel, is not the only character who falls short. Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) are two white girls hanging out with friends at the Algiers motel. Caught in the wrong place by the police patrolmen, both characters are subject to patronising lectures and increasingly sexualised interrogations. Both characters are extras there to show how debauched the policemen are. Hannah Murray, famous for her role as Gilly in Game of Thrones, plays Gilly again but set in the 1960’s instead of Westeros, her face switching between outrage or surprise. Finally, the casting at times did not fit. The young men who have the cap gun in the Algiers motel were a lot younger in real life than the actors depicting them. Consequently their antics leading to the standoff in the motel appear idiotic, rather than it simply being young frustrated men acting out.
Detroit’s excesses show in the third act by going beyond its natural end after the motel is left behind. Bigelow does enjoy creating a epilogue for her films, with The Hurt Locker showing a few scenes of life back home. In Bigow’s fixation to document the whole affair at the Algiers Motel, Detroit becomes a tedious true crime come court room drama which should have been a separate film. The additional 40 minutes were a unnecessary additional bid for oscar nominations which tries to build outrage in viewers left numb by the motel scenes. Characters suffer as their arc become convoluted, especially Melvin who is placed in one horrible situation only to appear in another with no explanation.
Detroit is worth the price of a ticket because John Boeyga and Will Poulter hoist the film up. Yet like Okja and The Neon Demon, its meandering tale shows that Bigelow was given a bit too much money and independence when filming. Detroit should have been two separate films, one film focusing on institutionalised racism and a companion film dissecting the violence racism brings. This is a bold suggestion, but one which would have saved the story from being two halves of a separate whole.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below: