Detroit is a gripping and disturbing docu-drama in director Kathryn Bigelow’s inimitable style, but it doesn’t deliver on the same scale as her two greatest works.
Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, Detroit, doesn’t deliver on the same scale as her masterpieces, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, which established her as the leading contemporary director of immersive historically-based realist drama. These two great earlier films were meticulously researched down to the finest detail, and came across as so authentic that watching them felt like vicarious experience. There were moral complexities to grapple with for both the characters and audience. You were left with a sense of having gained real insight into the extreme real-life situations depicted. While Detroit is a brilliantly managed gut-churning docu-drama with Bigelow’s mark all over it, it lacks the audacious scope, intricate detail and moral complications of her best work.
The film is set in Detroit during the race riots of 1967. Despite the implications of its title, the riots themselves and the event that triggered them are not Bigelow’s primary concern here. They are dispensed with early on in an impressive but all-too-brief treatment that adroitly captures the detonation point of a city simmering with racial tension. This is unfortunate, because if anyone could have tackled the riots and the factors behind them on film, it’s Bigelow. However, they are subsequently relegated to mere dramatic backdrop, as the focus narrows to an incident that took place at the Algiers Motel culminating in the deaths of three African American men.
For the bulk of the movie, we’re locked into a ground floor corridor of the motel, where three white cops have several black guys and two white girls baled up facing the wall, as they prowl to and fro interrogating them as to the location of a gun allegedly used to snipe on police and National Guardsmen from an upper floor window (the “gunman” is shot dead virtually as soon as the cops storm the motel). Led by the sadistic and ever-menacing Krauss (Will Poulter), whom we have seen earlier shooting a fleeing rioter in the back, the cops’ tactics include humiliation, verbally and physically assaulting the terrified ‘suspects’, and dragging individuals off into adjoining rooms to conduct mock executions, one of which turns all too real.
As with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, the tension is ratcheted near to breaking point, but unlike in those two great works, viewer fatigue becomes a factor here. One reason is the familiar set-up – we’ve seen this sort of thing many times before. It’s still gripping, harrowing and confronting, but it is not the transportative experience you hope for with Bigelow.
It doesn’t help that the characterisation is simplistic; there are only bad guys and their victims. The plight of the victims is horrendous, to be sure, but none of them are fleshed out as characters; thus, emotional investment on the part of the viewer is minimal. Sure, we are outraged by the racism of the cops, but perhaps not enough given the extremity of its expression. And the ringleader, Krauss, the only character developed beyond sketch, comes across as a psycho, rather than a racist. The guy is just plain evil. This is a problem, in that the Krauss character undercuts what appears to be the filmmakers’ primary intention: to draw parallels between police racism in America of the 60s and the present day (let’s face it, little seems to have changed).
With so much of the film taken up with the Algiers Motel incident, there is time only for a cursory coverage of the court case that followed. The outcome is predictable, but no less infuriating for that – and you don’t have the “it’s only a movie” escape route.
Many reviewers have raved about Detroit, and at very least it’s a gripping and disturbing crime thriller based on fact. It’s just not the expansive, multi-faceted and insightful take on extreme historical events Bigelow offers at her extraordinary best.
Movie Website: http://detroit.movie/
Australian release date: Detroit in Australian cinemas from 9 Nov 2017
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