I was so ready for a hug and to see some smiles from my 20 month old son after viewing Kathryn Bigelow’s devastating and purposefully harrowing docudrama Detroit. Working again with screenwriter Mark Boal (they previously created the one-two punch of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, which are two of the best topical thrillers ever), this time they delve into one of America’s most disgusting chapters of racially motivated violence, the Algiers Motel killings and the 12th street Detroit riots of 1967. After an unexpectedly gripping animated sequence that opens the film and dispenses with some societal context, the film gets right to business, and never lets up for a moment.
Bigelow’s highly visceral aesthetic style is in full view during Detroit, with expert cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93, Captain Phillips) getting up-close and personal with the actors (everyone in the cast is dynamite) during the vividly staged riot sequences which comprise roughly the first third of the film, putting the viewer smack dab in the middle of the action, with a darting sense of spatial focus that both startles due to its seeming randomness, but feels visually coherent in the best way possible. William Goldenberg’s blistering editing makes every single scene count, with the brilliant sound work (those gunshots sound REAL…) adding further dimension to the stylistic package. This film takes a microscopic look at one event but places it within a larger contextual sense, one that unfortunately feeds into the future.
On a production level, the film is simply tremendous, and because each performer was fully dedicated to their role, and because every craftsperson brought their A-game, Detroit feels both intimate and epic in the best way possible. Massive kudos for Megan Ellison’s continuous quest to produce (and now distribute) intelligent films made for adults who don’t care about seeing anyone in spandex. People have been complaining that Detroit is “one-note” and that the extended sequence inside the motel goes on for “too long” or that, rather absurdly, Bigelow and Boal “shouldn’t” have made the movie because “they’re white.” I am not going to entertain any of these idiocies with responses; if you can’t figure out that the ENTIRE POINT of the movie is to suffocate you in terrible and grotesque human behavior without full catharsis, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
Bigelow and Boal want to force everyone – black, white, brown, purple, etc – to confront the vile thought processes that informed the senseless and pointless killings in that motel. This is the reason why Detroit exists – to outrage and to make links to our current society where African Americans continue to be targeted by certain law enforcement officers for crimes they didn’t commit. In our appalling Trump era, this film means even more than it ever could mean, so I guess it’s no surprise that the vast majority of ticket-buyers turned a blind eye to Detroit on its opening weekend.
Detroit is frustrating, and compelling, in the same way as David Fincher’s Zodiac in that there’s no emotionally satisfactory ending, and both Bigelow and Fincher, in their respective films, ratchet up the anxiety and never stray too far from the facts of the situation. In many respects, and rightfully so, Detroit, also like Zodiac, resembles a tightly constructed horror film, because, let’s be honest, the situation that unfolded in that motel was nothing short of horrific for the people being terrorized and murdered. It was Bigelow and Boal’s bold decision to be fully unrelenting with their approach, and I applaud them for it, even if it meant that the filmmaking made me upset and uncomfortable.
I totally understand, accept, respect, and embrace poetic license on the part of filmmaker, and conjecture when needed. It’s abundantly clear that Bigelow and Boal did their research, and since the story that they’re telling has no happy ending, I’m glad they didn’t try to manufacture something that would have felt false. This movie is supposed to knock the wind out of you (I felt gut-punched walking out of the theater) and it’s supposed to make you angry (this is a very grim and volatile piece of work that rarely offers any easy answers). I’m sure I’ll see other films that will entertain me more this year, but I doubt I’ll be as galvanized by any one piece of storytelling the way I was with Detroit.
Review by Nick Clement