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FILM REVIEW: Bigelow Delivers Powerful Punch in Gutsy, Timely DETROIT

FILM REVIEW: Bigelow Delivers Powerful Punch in Gutsy, Timely DETROIT

Ever so often, a movie dealing with a grueling historical episode, one which demands retelling, arrives in theaters to controversy, shock, and awe. In her latest film, Kathryn Bigelow delivers one such film for the ages. Detroit, an at times unforgiving docudrama, focuses incisively and disturbingly on a particular incident during the 1967 riots that assailed that city, the so-called “Algiers Motel Incident.” You will not believe your eyes by the end of it, except you’ll know you have to believe it, because the entire picture was put together by a director who has become a sort of expert in retelling of difficult procedurals.

But, in addition to being compelling cinema, Detroit is most clearly a social commentary piece, a critique of the state of race relations in the United States not just in 1967, but 50 years later, up to this very day. Railroaded unfairly for making a movie with a “political viewpoint” after she did the bin Laden drama Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow has come back with a vengeance, making clear that she will not be swayed away by the threat of political boycott. Detroit has a clear and unapologetic perspective on the testy subject of race relations, and on the issue of police brutality in particular, and it is most definitely going to ruffle some feathers.

Perhaps my predictions will be wrong and we will rally around a horrendous chapter in history and leave divisions aside. Who am I kidding, right? If Detroit teaches you anything, it is that hate dies hard and that mistrust, fear, and prejudice are beasts that cannot easily be slayed. Too bad.

The script, by frequent Bigelow collaborator Mark Boal (they both won Oscars for their work in 2009’s The Hurt Locker), begins with a somewhat curious and clunky expositional prologue about white flight and blight in urban centers in the 1960s. It is strange only because one is not used to seeing Bigelow be so rigidly formalistic. But you soon understand why a history lesson was needed. Most audiences will meet with skepticism—if not outright cynicism—the events they’re about to witness.

After the opening, we soon find ourselves trailing a somewhat diverse group of people until their fates become intertwined—two Detroit police officers, one played by the bone-chilling, hair-raising Will Poulter; a security guard who eventually tags along with them, played by Star Wars’ John Boyega, in a transformative role; two young (white) girls visiting from Ohio; and a group of African American friends or individuals, all headed for or partying at the Algiers Motel.

Although the events that transpire after this group finds itself together in the hotel are historical, I will not spoil them any further than to say that the next 60 minutes or so are some of the most stressful, anxiety-inducing moments in Bigelow’s library, including the tense but gripping climax of Zero Dark Thirty. What you see is so upsetting as to seem fictionalized at times, except that the outcome of the entire episode was unfortunately all too real.

In the middle of it all is a difficult performance by Boyega, a respectable appearance in the last act by John Krasinski, and an absolutely spectacular performance by Poulter as the main villain in the film. It cannot be easy for any actor to play such a thankless, evil role, but Poulter did it with aplomb and dignity. If the movie were not so potentially incendiary, he should and would get an Oscar nomination.

Bigelow has never been much about big effects, showy spectacle, or dazzling flashes. Her movies are, instead, brilliant in their directness, refreshing in their sincerity, while never hesitating to show things as violent or tense as they need to be, or to resist the temptation to sensationalize. Few directors are so respectful to her subject matters, as well as to her audiences, than Kathryn Bigelow is.

Fifty years on from the Detroit riots and the tragic events that Bigelow depicts in her new film, it is refreshing that a woman (her) has finally won Best Director at the Oscars, and that she is working in a genre that has been almost exclusively male-dominated and doing so in this triumphant matter, sort of how Patty Jenkins is doing within her own niche. It is, on the other hand, disappointing that 50 years on, the issues this movie tackles, those of police brutality, criminal justice unfairness, and prejudice and bias while turning the other way, still seem as real and as pressing as they were 50 years ago, on that miserable night. That is the message that the movie most is interested in, and the one that it powerfully and successfully delivers.

Grade: A

About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film ‘The Lost Weekend’ is pure coincidence

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