Before I begin the review proper, I’m going to allow myself a bit of a tangential rant on the way the actual city of Detroit is used, or rather not used, in fictional portrayals of the city. It seems that if a film is set in the city of Detroit it is nearly always filmed somewhere else. Robocop was filmed in Dallas. Assault on Precinct 13 and Detroit Rock City were filmed in Toronto, as was Four Brothers. Don’t Breathe was filmed largely in Hungary. There are a few films that take place in Detroit which were actually shot in Detroit such as the Detroit scenes in Beverly Hills Cop and the Red Dawn remake, but for the most part Detroit is used as a generic city which won’t be recognized such as in Regarding Henry, Batman v. Superman, and the Transformers movies. As a resident of Detroit, to find out Detroit was shot primarily in Boston was a bit of an insult. Rant over.
Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood right now giving as dramatic critical darlings that border on action films in that they deal with subjects that are normally considered hypermasculine but she often eschews the pure action you would expect from her subject matter to give us gripping, often downright brutal, drama instead. Her latest film Detroit does just this using an unusual five act structure in which we don’t even meet our characters until the second act nor delve into the main focus of the film’s plot until the third. Detroit takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots in which 150 blocks of the city had to be shut off from the world outside, and the entire city had to be put on a curfew and patrolled by Detroit and State Police as well as the National Guard for 5 days. Since it is coming out on the 50th Anniversary of these events, and not by coincidence, of course, Detroit is being marketed as the story of the Detroit riots, but it really isn’t. Detroit uses the riots as its backdrop and setting, but the story focuses on an incident which occurred at the Algiers Motel in which three black men were found murdered and many others beaten.
The screenplay for Detroit, as mentioned earlier, uses a five act structure which makes for some unusual story telling. The first act is devoted entirely to setting up the mood and the situation by showing us how the riots began and how they spread. This means we don’t even meet the focal characters of the story until the second act, and a lot of time is spent on them before we get to the real meat of the story in the third act. This methodology makes for a film in which you aren’t really sure what the film you are watching wants you to focus on for a large chunk of its running time, but I believe all this set up pays off in how immersive and gripping the story ultimately becomes after you really get to know both the main characters and the level of lawlessness and fear going on around them. I won’t spoil the story by going on at length about the focus of the last two acts, but I will say that I also don’t believe there is any way they could have gripped our attention the way they do if we didn’t have an intimate connection with the characters involved by the time we get to this part of their story.
Detroit is a brutal, unrelenting, and unfortunately very contemporary movie. I would say that the film has more in common with a horror film than an action movie or thriller, in fact, though this horror is one that actually happened and could still very easily actually happen today. Bigelow’s film shows us either that history repeats itself, or that very little has changed in the past 50 years, as the events on screen are ones we could imagine seeing on the evening news any given night. The story is brutal and modern enough that I imagine Detroit is going to trigger anger in a great many people of many different races and beliefs bringing up cries of racism, reverse racism, injustice, distortion, and many, many other sensitive buzzwords which lead to loud arguments and worse.
The acting and camera work are both top notch featuring a very large ensemble cast. You’ll recognize John Boyega (Finn from the new “Star Wars” series) as a security guard trying to diffuse racial tensions, Hannah Murray (Gilly in “Game of Thrones”) as a party girl from Ohio who gets caught up in the events at the hotel, and Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the Marvel Studio movies) as an ex-veteran staying at the motel right away, and most of the rest of the large cast will at least seem familiar (and probably are). All do a fantastic job making us believe that we are really reliving the intense events which took place 50 years ago, and all give us three dimensional real characters we can recognize and relate to. As for the visuals, I do have a minor issue with the amount of shaky cam used throughout the film, but for the most part it was competent to excellent cinematography which captured both the action and the moods of the film unobtrusively which is saying something since so much of the action takes place in constrained bordering on claustrophobic environments.
Whenever a film is based on actual historic events there is nearly always some doubt as to its accuracy, and Detroit is no exception, but two of the survivors of the Algiers Motel that night 50 years ago were actually on set for the filming of Detroit working with the cast and crew to give their take on the events. Both have given their stamp of approval to the film, so if it isn’t completely authentic, it’s at least close enough that two of those who the film really portrays are happy.
Final verdict: Bigelow does yet again what she does so well, takes what in different hands would be an action/thriller and turns it into compelling character driven drama. Detroit is going to be a controversial film as it is brutal, unrelenting, and focuses on themes which are incredibly divisive in the here and now, but that is what makes it so important. Detroit is not light entertainment, I also would not call it educational as its story is more narrowly focused than you would expect from a historical drama, but it is powerful and it makes an equally powerful statement about race, entitlement, power, and desperation. Detroit won’t be easy for many to watch, both due to subject matter and its unusual story structure, and even more difficult for many to confront, but its powerful and insightful message is one that demands your attention.