DetroitReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/28/17 20:46:28
Even if they didn’t happen to be coming out in theaters within a week of each other, it would be easy to recognize any number of unexpected and inadvertent parallels between Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” and Chritstopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” Both are large-scale and serious-minded historical dramas aimed at adult audiences coming out in the middle of a moviegoing season usually dedicated to aggressively silly nonsense. Both tell dark and uncompromising stories that largely eschew the kind of simple-minded melodramatics that are usually inserted into such things as a way of allegedly broadening their potential appeal. Both are stunning technical achievements from two of the best filmmakers working today that place viewers smack dab in the middle of their respective events with a ruthless and sometimes horrifying efficiency that is not easy to shake once they leave the multiplex. And yet, while “Dunkirk” is sure to go down as one of the best films of the year, “Detroit,” while certainly a more dramatically challenging work by far, just misses the mark—it contains some of the most powerful and unforgettable filmmaking you are likely to see anytime soon but also includes a couple of key elements that are awkward enough to keep it from fully coming together.Like “Dunkirk,” “Detroit” is technically a war film, one that is centered around the racial and social unrest in America’s major cities that began erupting into violence during the turbulent decade of the Sixties. Following a brief but undeniably affecting prologue, written by Henry Louis Gates Jr., that deftly explains the history of the Great Migration and the social and economic estrangement of millions of African-Americans who were largely herded into increasingly run-down sections of cities with few opportunities while the white population (along with the jobs and the economy) shifted in droves to the suburbs. One of these areas was Detroit, Michigan, and as the film proper opens, a police raid on an illegal after-hours bar on July 23, 1967 provides the spark that leads to what can only be described as a nightmare. Yes, the police are perfectly within their rights to shut the place down but their approach is so heavy-handed—especially when a snafu forces the cops to take those being arrested out the front door in full view of the neighborhood—that it proves to be the last straw. A rock is thrown through a window, a gas station is set on fire and with terrifying ease, a riot begins that will decimate the city, horrify the nation and necessitate the arrival of the National Guard to attempt to restore order alongside the local and state police patrolling the streets, though their overwhelming presence, alongside their inclination to look at any young African-American male on the streets as a potential suspect, is only serving to make a tense situation even worse.
Two days later, the riots are still going on and the scene shifts to the Algiers Motel, where a number of people have gone to either get off the streets or hang out in a poolside annex out back. There is Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), a recently returned Vietnam vet who was one of those caught up in the club raid. Another is Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the charismatic lead singer of the up-and-coming singing group who arrives with friend Fred (Jacob Lattimore) after what was meant to be the group’s big break—performing on a bill with Martha and the Vandellas in front of record company reps—falls apart when the show is cut short because of the chaos on the streets. The only whites on the premises are Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two teenage girls from Ohio who are hanging out with a few guys that include Carl (Jason Mitchell), a hothead who decides to illustrate for the girls exactly what it is like to be a black man on the streets with the aid of what turns out to be a harmless starters pistol. Then, in what can only be described as an act of pure stupidity, Carl decides to taunt the Guardsmen on the streets by firing that starters pistol out the window in order to throw a scare into them.
Needless to say, this goes very badly and the annex is stormed by cops who are convinced there is a sniper on the premise. Inevitably, the cops overreact, especially when they cannot find a gun but do find Robert and the two girls sitting in the same motel room together, and herd everyone downstairs to be shoved up against the wall while demanding that they reveal the shooter and the whereabouts of the gun. When the terrified guests don’t answer—many of them were not around when Carl fired out the window and those that did are not talking—the cop in charge, Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter), a racist hothead already in trouble with his department for shooting a looter in the back and that he has already killed Carl and planted a knife next to the body in an attempt to make it seem justified, decides to take things up a notch in order to get a confession. This comes in the form of a sick “game” in which he takes a suspect into the next room, loudly threatens them and then fires a bullet away from them, demanding that they stay still and quiet, while going back into the hall to tell the others that they are next if they don’t spill. Others stumble on this situation as it unfolds but of them, a National Guardsman takes part in the game, the state police decide to ignore it entirely and noble-minded security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) does nothing for fear of escalating things even further.
Even with Melvin standing by, things spiral even further out of control when one of Krauss’ fellow officers fails to grasp the concept of the game and really does kill another one of the guests and in the process of trying to cover their tracks while letting the others go and threatening them if they ever talk about what happened, Krauss murders a third one. Despite his efforts to cover things up, what happened at the Algiers is too big to be contained and Krauss and his two fellow officers are put on trial for murder. Even though he did absolutely nothing and had no connection with the cops, Melvin finds himself of trial alongside them as well, either as an especially egregious example of overreach on the part of the prosecutor or, more likely, to serve as a scapegoat for the incident if the need arises. The result of the trial may have seemed shocking to observers at the time but will probably not come as much of a surprise to viewers today.
After working together on “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are no strangers to creating cinematic high-pressure situations that are so suffused with tension that even the slightest move or word has the very real possibility of horrifying consequences. That is certainly the case with “Detroit” but, unlike those earlier films, this time around, they don’t seem to have a strong idea of what they want to say with their recreation of the events at the Algiers other than to suggest to contemporary viewers outraged by the string of seemingly motiveless acts of violence against young black men by police officers who then go free that such incidents are hardly new. Since the film lacks this or any other form of catharsis to help process what has been seen, it winds up feeling a little cold and dramatically inert with the protracted Algiers sequence feeling more like an exercise than anything else at times. Part of this may come from the fact that the material involving Krauss and the other two cops has been somewhat fictionalized for legal reasons and it shows—while a lot of the other material teems with life and a you-are-there vibe, the stuff with the cops more often than not feels a bit off. This is especially the case with the Krauss character, thanks to a one-note performance by Will Poulter that is such an overboard miscalculation that it threatens to derail the entire film at times. I also wish that the film had gone a little more into detail in regards to the court case as a way of showing exactly how a seemingly open-and-shut case could go so awry. Granted, asking for more of a movie that already clocks in at nearly 2.5 hours may seem a bit perverse but I think that the additional dramatic weight that this might have provided would have helped with its ultimate impact.
The problems with “Detroit” are especially vexing because there is a lot of very good stuff to be had in it as well. Visually, the film is always arresting with Bigelow brilliantly evoking the look and feel of that particular point in time with the efforts of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and accentuates the tension in the air with the jagged editing patterns created by William Goldenberg that maintain the sense of unease throughout the elongated running time. For the large cast of character, Bigelow has brought together a group of largely unknown actors peppered with a few familiar faces here and there and while there are a couple of jarring moments here and there (such as the moment when John Krasinski turns up out of nowhere as a lawyer for the cops), the blend is for the most part effective with Mackie, Smith and Boyega turning in the most gripping performances of the bunch.In the past, there have been films that have put viewers through the wringer with recreations of historical atrocities that utilized multiple perspectives and an especially visceral approach to grab them—Paul Greengrass did it with “Bloody Sunday,” his powerful look at a 1972 Irish civil rights march where the participants were fired upon by British troops—but the best ones are those that offer some kind of point that gives viewers a reason to endure the on-screen brutality without making the whole thing seem exploitative. Unfortunately, there is not much of an obvious point or purpose to the events that are being presented and the film suffers as a result. “Detroit” is never a bad movie per se—as recreations of troubling events in our country’s checkered history in regards to civil rights and race relations, I prefer it to the likes of “Selma,” if only because Bigelow is a born filmmaker who couldn’t make a glorified TV movie along the lines of what Ava Duvernay offered up if she tried. If nothing else, this is a film that will inspire plenty of anger and revulsion from most viewers (not to mention no small amount of hand-wringing from pundits on the right fearing that it could incite some moviegoers to violent acts). When it comes to ideas about what to do with that anger and revulsion, on the other hand, it comes up a little short.
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