Detroit (2017) – Review

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Will Poulter, Jason Mitchell, Jack Reynor, Hannah Murray

The Overview
Amidst the chaos of the Detroit Rebellion, with the city under curfew and as the Michigan National Guard patrolled the streets, three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel. (Source: IMDb)

The Good
Kathryn Bigelow has an already impressive resume of films under her belt, with her last two feature directorial efforts, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and The Hurt Locker (2008), being nominated for and winning an Oscar respectively. Thoughts would quickly turn to whether she is to continue this streak with her latest film, Detroit, however it is rather modestly appearing in the middle of the summer rather than towards the end of the year when the awards season really begins.

That does perhaps go in its favour however, as particularly in some of the acting categories, Detroit could be a genuine contender, with the prediction that the film itself will slip somewhat under the radar by the time the glitz of the Oscars comes around. 

More on the acting later, but on the whole Detroit is a dramatic powerhouse of a film, with a second act which is relentlessly tense, emotive and powerful. It is hard to watch yet hard to look away as the brutality and tensions which had been bubbling to the surface, explode in a big way. Bigelow does a great job of establishing an air of tension and unease right from the start, rooting it in the time period and social context with a beautifully simple animated prologue. The steady unfurling of events in the opening scenes paves way for the lighting of the touch paper and all hell breaking loose. Interspersed with real footage and news from the time, there is a sense of authenticity, even when admittedly the later events had to be dramatised slightly due to a lack of witness statements; the reason for which becomes clearer as the film unfolds. 

Gritty realism is something which Bigelow excels at, and Detroit is no exception to this. The handheld camera and texture of the visuals not only helps it feel authentic for the time period, but also does a great job of keeping the audience in the throes of the action. When at times it could seem a little repetitive, that feeling of being in the midst of the devastation gives it emotional grounding. 

Performance wise, this film is incredible, particularly from Will Poulter, who absolutely deserves a nod come awards season. If his supporting role in The Revenant was the starter, then his performance in Detroit is the meaty main course, fully demonstrating his skills as an actor. His performance is made perhaps even more powerful by the fact he looks so baby-faced; to then see the atrocities he commits makes it even more shocking. He seems like he would be a lovely chap in real life, so to be able to pull off being so incredibly detestable, is no easy feat. He carries the film for much of the second act and his performance is truly something to behold. Likewise, John Boyega proves he has a career beyond Star Wars, and his quietly measured performance is equally great. He gets some of the more emotional moments in the film, and there’s a couple of moments towards the end where he expresses emotion so deftly and so wonderfully. His story is in many ways heart-breaking, and where perhaps the audience would find it difficult to connect with the situation that is so horrific beyond belief, his character is very easy to connect to; just a guy trying to do the right thing and finding himself hugely out of his depth. 

The Bad
The film writes itself into something of a corner with the astonishing second act, that it feels like the wind comes out of its sails towards the end, the more it goes on. Whilst this part of the story is undoubtedly vital, it feels a little convoluted, and something of a disservice to how great everything is that precedes it.

It is overlong and bloated in places as well, and it feels like this latter part of the story could still have been included but in a much punchier way. Along the way, its messaging becomes a little confused, which is a shame because up to a point, it had been incredibly powerful.

That isn’t to say this negates everything that comes before it however, but it does start to feel like a film that doesn’t know how to wrap itself up. 

The Verdict
I saw this movie and you should too. 
It feels somewhat virtuous to say, but this movie feels important in places, sadly still relevant, and undeniably powerful. It is important without ever having an over-righteous air of self-importance; it is an importance which is earned, and necessary. With great performances from across the board, and a middle section which will leave your nerves in tatters, Detroit is definitely one to watch. 


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