For two hours, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a searing, hopelessly intense depiction of police brutality in the United States. It doesn’t offer a hint of progress or change; it tells a story of racially charged hate, abuse, and murder at the hands of powerful men who feel they are better than others. This is not a story many people want to hear, but it’s as pertinent now as it ever was. And though Bigelow doesn’t wrap everything up perfectly, her few end-game missteps don’t diminish the work as a whole.
The bulk of the film takes place in the Algiers Motel in June 1967, as race riots swell through the streets of Detroit. Philip Krauss (a chilling Will Poulter) is a cop prone to shooting looters in the back; he and his partners (Ben O'Toole and Jack Reynor) charge into the Algiers to search for a potential sniper. There’s no sniper and no gun; just a bunch of black guys hanging out with two white girls (Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray and Justified’s Kaitlyn Dever). This riles up Krauss and his partners to no end; despite occasionally helpful intervention from local security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), they start plotting how to violently terminate this situation to their benefit.
The terror created by Krauss and company wouldn’t be as heavy without sterling performances from the Algiers residents: Algee Smith and Jacob Latimore demand horrified sympathy as two young friends randomly caught up in the chaos, and Anthony Mackie adds star gravitas as a military veteran who has come home to a new version of the same hell. Though most of their screen time is spent with their faces and hands pressed against a wall, Bigelow’s staging and their palpable fright makes every twitch or cry of concern into a near nightmare.
After The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, it’s no surprise that Bigelow can build tension. Where she falters a bit, unfortunately, is how it all comes together. Detroit can’t seem to decide who its main character is; this is not necessarily a bad thing, as not every movie needs a clearly defined protagonist. But when Melvin shows up roughly a half-hour in, we’re led to believe that he’s our guy. Yet his role is never really clarified; as a black man in a uniform, he can move between the two races, but is he a scapegoat or a hero? Or neither; just a guy caught up in this mess? Then, as we move toward the end, Smith’s Larry Reed suddenly becomes the focus. It’s more confusing than it should be.
And it’s not just changing perspectives; the last 20 minutes as a whole are strangely disjointed. In theory, it’s wise to show the incident’s aftermath; what happened at the Algiers obviously had long-lasting repercussions. But while the first two hours were meticulously excruciating, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal power through these years of events with no real context. We see our characters escape justice, or pursue peace, all lacking the power of previous scenes. I’d rather be left with deep dread over the Algiers, and the knowledge of what can happen when evil men fear what they choose not to understand, with the option to consume more of the actual story on my own time.
Regardless, Detroit’s strengths make it necessary viewing. Though if you like to go to the movies for a good time, steer clear. If you like to pretend that America is a magical place where all wrongs are righted—a curious sentiment these days—it’s not for you. But if you are OK with confronting yet another dark chapter in America’s recent past, through the eyes of a sharp filmmaker who was born to tackle the brunt of this story, you can’t do much better.