By Jack Dignan
Originally Published On Salty Popcorn
I really, thoroughly didn’t enjoy DETROIT. Much like director Kathryn Bigelow’s precious film, ZERO DARK THIRTY, DETROIT is far from a pleasant ride. It’s not the first film that comes to mind when you think of a fun movie, yet it’s also one of the best films of the year. This is not a film for everyone. I want to get that out of the way now. But for those who can stomach the gruelling plot, or even those who can’t but are after a film they can really think about, it’s definitely worth checking out DETROIT.
The film is based on a true story, and it’s a story that will leaving a lasting impact. Or at least, it’s a true story that’s supposedly true, taken from the real life accounts of the victims but never proven in the eyes of the law or the history records. DETROIT’s title cards explain the situation better than I can, but no matter whether or not the details remain factual, the story presented is an important one you’re not likely to forget. We’re taken back to the 1967 Detroit riots, where prejudices were high and battalions of white police officers used violent means to get what they desired out of the black residents. The riots lasted a week, and the film focuses in on just one of the many atrocities that took place.
Through a series of connected, but mostly unrelated events, a small group of predominantly black men all find themselves spending the night at a local Detroit motel. After a series of gunshots are traced back to the motel, police officers, led by a vicious cop named Krauss (Will Poulter), raid the motel and hold all the innocent guests hostage, where a brutal and violent interrogation begins, one that leads to death, torture, psychological abuse and a failure to follow the justice system. It’s a story of race, injustice and police brutality, and while repulsive to watch in every sense of the word, there’s brilliance to be found here.
While the events that may, or may not, have taken place in that motel occurred in the 60s, they remain just, if not more, relevant today than ever. There’s plenty of good in this world, I’ve seen it first hand, but as it currently stands, this place is very, very flawed. Racism, sexism and homophobia should be a thing of the past, but they’re not. They remain very prominent, especially with a self indulgent Nazi-supporting madman running the United States. The world is a cruel, unfair place, where violence seems to be the answer against unjustifiable prejudices, but this simply is not okay. It’s not. We, as people, struggle to learn, and while many might see film as an escapism (which it is), it often holds with it a much larger significance on our society. It can influence, and this film attempts to do just that.
Everybody goes to the movies. I work at a cinema. I’ve seen how many people go to the movies. Sure, a lot of it is harmless entertainment, but then there’s movies like DETROIT that shake you to your core with its harsh, brutal realism and impactful, racially charged and politically relevant messages. It’s not the first time we’ve seen these prejudices portrayed on screen, not even the first time this year (another excellent standout is horror masterpiece GET OUT), but it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to go away. We’re not doing enough to stop it. But we can look at films like this as a decades too late starting place, and it’s quite the movie to analyse. DETROIT is a sickening, depressing, cruel movie experience with a lot on its mind and a lot for all types of audience members to soak in.
Kathryn Bigelow directs it to sheer perfection. It’s a visceral, unrelenting two and a half hours of sheer terror and violence. She implements a very jolting, hand held camera style that I’m often not a fan of, and even wasn’t for the first act (or so) here, but once the sequences at the motel come into play, this camera work takes on another level. You become immersed in the circumstance. It drains your soul of life and leaves you helpless, head against a wall as this film plays a game with your mind, much like with the actual characters, and Bigelow is the perfect director for the job. What she evokes from her actors, and furthermore the audience, is breathtaking. Expect to see this film winning big during award’s season.
There are no easy roles to play in DETROIT. Every actor is required to embrace a darker, heavier side to their characters, more so than in any of the previous roles I’ve seen them in. Will Poulter is sensationally savage as a racist, disgusting pig of a cop, whose extreme antics lead this film into the uncomfortable, violent sensation it is. John Boyega kills it as a security guard helping out the wrong motel at the wrong time, and paying the price big time for it, whether the public thinks this or not. It’s a whole other side to him in comparison to the stoic, but fun loving characters he’s played up until this point. Anthony Mackie only has a minor role, but even he’s great. Algee Smith, on the other hand, gives what’s perhaps my favourite performance in this film. This is his breakthrough role and he embraces it.
As for negatives… DETROIT does have a few. Outside of the aforementioned cinematography issues, there’s also a serious pacing issue. The first hour is dedicated to setting up characters and explaining their circumstances, but a little too much time is dedicated to it, especially in comparison to how much time is spent in the motel. Clocking it at 143 minutes, this is a long movie, and it feels like it. You get a stretched out first act, followed by an equally long second act, then a somewhat tighter third. And it’s not like every scene from the first act was necessary, either, as plenty could certainly have been trimmed down to save the runtime.
I hated watching DETROIT, but my god did I love it. It’s a staggering, unrelenting experience that never lets you go and doesn’t shy away from its brutality. 2017 needed this film. It’s vital that it exists, and while I can’t see myself coming back to it any time soon, this is truly powerful stuff that couldn’t have come at a better time.
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