This review was written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
A convoy of armored vehicles drives through debris-strewn streets, past burning buildings, overturned cars. There’s a glint high up in a window. A soldier notices. “Sniper!” He fires his mounted machine gun, leaving a gaping hole in the building. Is this a scene from a war-torn country, the Middle-East maybe? No, this happened 50 years ago, here in the United States, in Detroit.
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) new movie is about the Detroit Riots that lasted 5 days and left 43 dead. Three of those deaths occurred in the Algiers Motel, at the hands of police. It’s a sprawling tale that begins with the inciting incident, follows several characters caught up in the resulting chaos, and then slowly narrows its focus and characters as they end up in that motel.
“Detroit” is a powerful movie. The injustice of the events dramatized are sure to raise viewers’ blood pressure and lower their anger management skills, especially as Bigelow’s immediate, cinéma vérité (gritty and in the moment) style puts you right in the middle of the fray, most notably during the protracted motel sequence that’s shocking but never gratuitous.
What’s impressive is how Bigelow manages to marry the vérité, fly-on-the-wall style with subtle stylistic touches, often to heartbreaking effect. Sometimes, the camera lingers just a little longer on something other than it normally would: the intertwining hands of a black man and a white woman, trying to calm each other while at the mercy of the police, or a grieving father, clutching several, still framed, baby photos of his murdered son. Blink and you miss it; catch it and they leave a major impact.
The audience around me began to get annoying around the film’s half-way mark, knee deep in the harrowing events. They were laughing, for instance, as two characters’ aborted escape attempt sent them right back to their captors without them even noticing their absence. I started to get angry. Then I realized, the audience wasn’t talking randomly or just being loud, they were reacting to the movie. It was so tense, so upsetting that the laughter, though not really appropriate, was a way of relieving that tension. Obviously, the movie was doing its job.
But it does have flaws. It overreaches, packing too much complicated material and emotions into two and a half hours. This becomes clear from the very beginning with an animated intro (colorful and oddly incongruent with the rest of the film’s aesthetic) that attempts to cram 300 years of race relations into a scant 2 to 3-minute explanation. Calling this simplistic is not an oversimplification.
But what follows works. I admired the free-wheeling narrative that makes up the film’s first half. There aren’t any leads, just points of view and the film seems content weaving through them at random, presenting different experiences of the riot. There’s a security guard (John Boyega) who attempts to broker peace between angry citizens and agitated (sometimes trigger-happy) authority figures; a police officer (Will Poulter) who thinks he’s just keeping the peace–by shooting fleeing looters in the back; and the lead singer (Algee Smith) of doo-wop group, The Dramatics, who doesn’t care about peace, he wants his big break, which is interrupted by the riots.
Early on, the film’s path isn’t clear at all. I would charitably call it meandering. But it wasn’t boring, and soon I felt excitement as these seemingly random pieces began to fall into place, slowly coalescing in the middle of the movie, in that motel. It’s a wonderful bit of writing from Mark Boal.
But then it falls apart again. There’s simply too much ground to cover in the aftermath. In the last 45 minutes alone, the film covers the police investigation into the events, the wrongful arrest of the security guard, a trial, the outcome of the trial, the grief of the victims’ loved ones and, on top of all that, the lingering trauma faced by one of the survivors. That’s a lot to work through in such a short amount of time, and it’s so scattershot that it feels somehow too short and too long at the same time.
“Detroit” is like a hand that slowly clenches around your throat. It’s that intense. But then, that fist unclenches again, and quickly, and with 45 minutes of movie left. Forty-five minutes that play like a highlight reel. But a good chunk of it works. And if Bigelow and Boal exceeded their grasp, at least their ambition and much of the film’s execution is admirable.