A powder keg of a film, if Zero Dark Thirty didn’t prove that The Hurt Locker was a fluke then Detroit irrefutably establishes Kathryn Bigelow as one of the best dramatic directors working today.
Detroit (2017) is a historical crime thriller written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty). It stars John Boyega as Dismukes, a security guard for a grocery store during the race riots of Detroit 1967 who becomes embroiled in the Algiers Motel incident when a group of Detroit Police headed by beat cop Krauss (Will Poulter) go rogue and exact retribution rather than justice.
Kathryn Bigelow has developed from a rather electic 90s career of action camp and sci-fi concepts to creating some of the best dramas of the 21st century, and Detroit further extends that legacy. It wasn’t a box office success when it debuted in the US several months ago (yet another example of a film short-shrifted in Australia) and that is a damn shame because not only did people miss a film that acts as a fantastic depiction a horrifying American historical event, they also missed one of the best and tensest films I’ve seen this year.
While the film initially presents itself as about the Detroit riots, the focus rapidly shifts to the Algier’s Motel incident as a sort of ‘eye in the storm’ for the riots themselves. It does a fantastic job of establishing the circumstances, setting and continual escalation that led to the deadly riots, although after a short while it does push it to one side to focus on the core event. And what a powder keg of an event it is. While the film openly admits to elaborating on events as a clear timeline of what actually transpired that night is subject to debate, it never loses its rooting in grounded, brutal realism and the horrifying realities that come with it. Both a rally call against the thoughts that led to these events and a respectful recreation of the events themselves, it’s a long-form scene that stretches the tension till breaking point before it ultimately being released into a much-required denouement.
All the performances, some from surprising sources, are also all stellar. John Boyega plays Dismukes as rather subdued and direct, which allows him to act as a form of conduit for the audience to view the event. Other characters embroiled in the Algiers Motel include Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Anthony Mackie and several others – all of whom are excellent in their respective roles. But the real standout is Will Poulter. I never thought the asshole from The Maze Runner would amount to much, but this coupled with The Revenant proves he has plenty of talent to show off. Not only does he play the most despicable character with just the right amount of indulgence and blind power-hunger, he can sell the righteous self-justification of a racist with as much gusto as a certain sitting President.
If I could point out one criticism of Detroit it would be the circumstances around the riot that are so well set up are never resolved, which leaves a minor, but still frustrating, dangling thread. But aside from that, this film is a gripping and grounded portrayal of a horrifying historical event. Oscar glory sadly may not be in its future thanks it its lacklustre box office, but that doesn’t stop this being a film to see.
General Audiences: Must-see
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended
Cinema-sobbers: Highly Recommended