The overstuffed, overwritten ‘Detroit’ is best when seemingly simple.
Black men stand still, and the camera shudders like it knows what’s coming. We certainly do. A technique overused in last year’s Jason Bourne, the jittery habit cinematographer Barry Ackroyd imbues in his shots fills them with an affecting anxiety that far outpaces the film itself. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit contains effective filmmaking but is never cohesively effective, and while its treatment of history is intense and intensive its decisions within these boundaries blur and mar a highly specific, inhumane event with misguided broadness.
The movie’s journalistic bookends, an impressionistic prelude setting the story’s focus in context with America’s historical injustices and an unending epilogue dragging our noses through the ramifications of the event’s abuse, separate the audience from the torture of its narrative focus. We’re removed both stylistically and narratively. Regardless of its sloppy transitions, the film’s central event, the crimes at the Algiers Motel during the five-day 12th Street Riot, stands as a testament to Bigelow’s ability to push a pulse.
She creates a city of war and anger, a “no man’s land” at the disservice of individuals but to the benefit of a larger tonal sense. The film is full of an unsettling motion even when its narrative stagnates. Initially, there are no lingering shots because standing still or watching too long means danger, but soon the complex claustrophobia of glass-littered streets turns to the simple anticipatory anxiety of a movie where you already know who will die once the film holds us hostage in the Motel.
The black men patronizing the Motel’s annex – including friends Larry and Fred (powerful relative newcomers Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore) who’re associated with The Dramatics – are targeted along with two white girls (thanklessly played by Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray) by gung-ho cops continuing the version of the Stanford Prison Experiment that America’s been conducting since its foundation. An excuse is made and the police brutality begins, visually and narratively separating the people into simple roles as either victim or oppressor, the logic of a home invasion applied to a city against itself.
This simplicity can undermine its goals. The only character to receive more than a light characterization is John Boyega’s semi-Samaritan security guard, whose complexity varies from accusations of Uncle Tom-ism to an embrace of the respect demanded by gun and uniform (that the Black Panthers would attest to) to a nauseating final disillusion. Indicative of its larger flaws, Detroit buries his strong performance with excess.
In crafting this incident, Bigelow also attempts to craft a city – a city full of people violent because they have had everything else stripped from them or because they have been trained for it. Like in her masterpiece The Hurt Locker, institutions leave their once-idealistic ranks manned by those equipped with only the simplest weapons. In Detroit, the police are empowered with unpunished hate. This pushes and pressures those on the receiving end of the mistreatment into the condensed, desperate, diamond-sharp logic of war. There’s a reason the Vietnam War plays such a prominent role as a symbolic counterpoint.
The riots began after the raid of a party celebrating the return of two Vietnam veterans, while the Algiers Motel saw another (Anthony Mackie) suffer at the hands of a militarized local police force and National Guard. One of Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s biggest missteps in their structuring of the story is their decision to position a fallacious moral rift between the white people with guns that work on a state level and the white people with guns that work at a federal level. The U.S. Army troops sent in by President Lyndon B. Johnson may well have been integrated and more progressive than the Michigan-commanded National Guard and police troops (despite hazy evidence to this point), but the film allows them the lesser evil of inactivity. While functioning as an unsubtle symbol of white America’s larger historical complacency (“racism is over!”), the troops’ eventual vindication feels as phony as the dialogue.
Historical dialogue is a tricky thing to judge because of our expectations. While it can be assumed that some of the over-scripted segments explaining larger racial themes are jarring and affected, the hate is harder to gauge. Hindsight would like to assume that there’s cartoonishness here, our modern progressivism (no matter how conservative you are, you’re more progressive than these cops) complicating the words and the emotions. Where is the line between caricature and reality? Will Poulter, looking like the cop we all know Toy Story‘s Sid applied to be before becoming a garbage man in Toy Story 3, is no help here. He’s great in the role, perfectly cast as a simpering weakling that revels in the unearned power unique in its racial availability. Yet, while his performance sells hate his words are neither rage-fueled or unadorned enough to complement the deep-rooted vitriol in the narrative.
This narrative beats over and over, first like a drum and then like a fist, more repetitive and unpleasant than meaningful. The central set-piece’s flaws are amplified by a finale as grueling and extended as the racist historical legacy it displays. The writing, if heightened before, becomes hammy, and the acting, if meant to encompass the meaningfully symbolic, becomes far too large (especially in a jarring, poorly-cast cameo by John Krasinski). There is power in this overlong film, but Bigelow struggles to wield it beyond her knack for forceful filmmaking. The framing, the contextualization of past and present, of this story was always the most important thing, as it always is with historical films. Its stumbles don’t fully take away the film’s potency, but they certainly showcase its missed opportunities.