Another tough project from the hard-hitting director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow has brought her knack, for capturing the brutally real, closer to home for Detroit and the film’s all the harder to watch for it.
Detroit takes the Algiers Motel incident as its plot, as the event unfolded in 1967, during the 12th Street Riot epoch in the titular city, opening with a brief, on-point and well illustrated animation of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series. The riot itself is generally happenstance to real focus of the film’s plot, though no less crucial to its meaning, and it is with an apt haphazardness that Bigelow captures its origin and continuation. These early scenes are disorientating and bleak; their synonymity to war zone footage is transparent well before scripted dialogue makes the nuance blatant.
Documentary footage interlinks here with choreographed filming that is at once viscerally effective in its realisation and seamlessly captured in its cinematography. In terms of visuals alone, BAFTA-winning (for The Hurt Locker) cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is the real star of Detroit.
Will Poulter plays Philip Krauss, a trigger-happy cop whose early promise (‘We need to stop failing these people’) disintegrates as he is placed into a Stanford Experiment situation. Despite facing charges for murder during the riots, Krauss is released back onto the beat, to be on hand when things turn nasty over at the Algiers.
RnB group The Dramatics are in the city hoping to secure a record deal when the riot splits them up, with lead singer Larry and friend Fred winding up at the Algiers, where they meet and ‘hook up’ with Julie Ann and Karen. In this setting up and, even, staging of event, character and location, screenwriter Mark Boal seems to dynamite his plot like a game of Cluedo. That the events that follow are true, or at least based on testimony, makes the whole event feel ever more tragic. Right down to the cruel presence of a Chekov’s gun device, Detroit is a theatre of cruelty in construction – a sensation that is only solidified with the film’s extended, real-time middle third.
It is fitting that Bigelow opts often in this devastating chunk of the film for handheld camerawork. Whereas early in the film this created the sensation of viewing war zone reportage, by the mid point it is as though we are watching some found footage horror. Except, here is a world more terrifying than anything in Blair Witch.
Credit where it is due to a unanimously strong cast – particularly Poulter and John Boyaga, as a security man and surrogate to the audience – but all are overshadowed somewhat by the distressing realisation of just how unknowingly pertinent Detroit is to the harrowing world of the present day.
For an hour, I could barely breathe.