During the summer of 1967, amidst no shortage of unrest between the city of Detroit's overwhelmingly black populace and overwhelmingly white law enforcement, a police raid of an unlicensed bar, and the chaos that quickly erupted among authorities, patrons and passersby, gave way to a five-day riot, one of the deadliest and most destructive in the nation's history.
Buildings across the city were looted or lit up in flames or both and police had no hesitation in pulling a trigger, even against those simply stealing groceries. By the end of the mayhem, 43 were dead with more than 1,000 injured.
Kathryn Bigelow's aggravating Detroit shines a spotlight on one particularly savage event that transpired over the pandemonium.
On the evening of July 25, in the annex at the city's Algiers Motel, teenager Carl (Jason Mitchell) takes out a starter gun to demonstrate to his friends how a police encounter really goes down in Detroit. He goes so far as to take a few shots out the window at National Guard forces, who are stationed about half a mile a way.
This quickly draws the attention of police, among them the sadistic Krauss (Will Poulter) who, with a pair of his fellow racist cop buddies, barnstorms the house, lines all inhabitants up against the wall and proceeds to subject his prey to what amounts of physical and psychological torture. There's the headstrong black security guard Melvin (John Boyega) who thankfully comes upon the motel but he too must tread very carefully in what has become Krauss' House of Horrors.
Detroit isn't without its merits. The performances, with the exception of a dreadful and distracting late cameo by John Krasinski (this year's Matthew Broderick in Manchester by the Sea), are all-around phenomenal. I was especially taken with Boyega, who has a powerful screen presence even when he says nothing at all - there's a sense of suppressed indignation there than is plenty palpable throughout the proceedings. And Poulter, with his devilish, Nurse Ratched-like eyebrows, is one scary piece of shit. Kudos too to Barry Ackroyd's fine cinematography.
That said, I had a lot of problems with this picture.
I sensed trouble on the horizon from the get-go with the film's curiously animated opening sequence, which spells out to the audience - like we were born yesterday - what brought about racial tensions in Detroit. Then, there's the uninvolving and unfocused opening half hour, which introduces far too many characters too quickly and uneasily tries to intertwine real-life stock footage of the events into the proceedings.
The middle of the picture, in which Krauss turns the Algiers into the motel from hell, has that same harrowing intensity of past Bigelow pictures. As isn't the case in her best films (like Zero Dark Thirty and Blue Steel), however, that feeling of exasperation here goes on so long that it ultimately turns into restlessness. The potency of the performances keep the proceedings gripping at some level but there comes a point where the violence and Poulter's histrionics veer on the excessive.
Then, there's the final half hour of the picture, which feels even more half-baked than the opening 30 and doesn't much resemble Bigelow's vivid style of filmmaking at all. Instead, I was reminded of Rob Reiner's workmanlike '60s civil rights yarn Ghosts of Mississippi, which too sports a few fabulous performances but gets awfully sleepy when it turns into a courtroom drama.
Was Bigelow, in the end, the best director for this project? I typically adore her but I'm unconvinced. She is a great filmmaker of actors and has captured one of the year's finest ensembles here. The picture, however, is not as confident or satisfying as nearly all of Bigelow's past films and the ferocity with which she directs often feels intemperate here.
Detroit is a bumpy endeavor to say the least.