Detroit (2017) (Review)

Detroit could not arrive at a more politically-unstable time. Leaving an early preview screening of the Kathryn Bigelow historical-drama, a notification appeared on my phone, revealing that Don*ld Tru*p had threatened North Korea with 'fire and fury', with the dictatorship state retorting with supposed plans to launch a nuclear bomb to test the presidents' threats. As of this moment, we have not entered World War III - but who knows whether that will be the case by the time I hit publish on this review.

Detroit documents the 1967 riots and police raids, which sparked one of the largest citizens' uprisings in the history of the United States of America. It is largely based around the Algiers Motel incident during the racially-charged 12th Street Riot and places the race tensions and discriminations of the time under the spotlight. Because of her critically-acclaimed previous releases, The Hurt Locker (which earned her an Oscar for Best Director) and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow's Detroit arrives on a wave of hype, with high-level expectations in tow.

Detroit is a long and heavy film; 143 minutes long and heavy, to be exact. In striving to tell a monumental true story, Detroit steers itself as closely to the facts, information and documentation available as possible. It is both a blessing and curse that Bigelow is so invested in the story she is telling: on one hand, it demonstrates an admirable drive to finally tell a story history has (inadvertently or not) ignored, in the most enlightening, truthful way possible; on the juxtaposing hand, it prevents Bigelow from viewing the end product in a decisive light, causing her to be unbelievably (but understandably) light-handed when it comes to editing, tightening and cutting the film down to a more appropriate length, clearly worried she would be providing a disservice to the people the story follows and documents.

What that leaves us with is a very bloated, occasionally messy and unfocused film with a brilliant, searing and faultless film hidden within. Its extra padding (and there is SO much of it) provides a unfortunate detriment to the scenes and sequences that work, with its inability to restrain itself putting an damper on the entire viewing experience. Runtime is very often my biggest complaint when it comes to film, and Detroit is one of the biggest offenders in recent memory.

The problem announces itself early on. Just minutes in, it is clear that Detroit deals with such an expansive, wide-spreading and crucial event in history, incorporating stock footage into the first act to give us scope of the riots. It is effective to begin with, setting an uncomfortable tone from the beginning - but it flounders soon after, struggling to find anything - or anyone - to anchor itself to. It finds itself rambling and meandering its way around its opening thirty to forty-five minutes, largely devoid of guidance or development or progression or successful assertions. We know the city is rioting, we know it serious and we understand that race plays a huge part in the uneasiness - but it wastes an awful lot of time saying very little. It almost lost viewers, with a restless audience from an early start.

However, after an exhausting act (and not in a very positive sense), Detroit delivers one of the most sophisticated, blistering, brutal and all-round outstanding middle acts of the year. Focused on the evening of the motel raid, Detroit engineers a searing atmosphere, operating almost like a horror film in its tension, direction and caustic nature. Unrelenting and visceral, the entire middle stretch is an absolute masterclass in film-making, ringing out a blistering atmosphere that elicits a clear emotional response from its audience. I simply cannot stress how nerve-shredding and shattering this middle act is, leaving you breathless as the night in the Algiers unfolds in an increasingly bloody, intense and brutal fashion.

Act two prospers for a number of reasons; Bigelow's direction is confident and masterful, a continual demonstration of her talent and skill, as previously proclaimed in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty; Mark Boal's script is agonising, crafted with a sophistication and know-how, a clear understanding on how to build tension to almost excruciating levels and deliver authentic dialogue to showcase the themes of power, control and fear. It explores these themes (and a myriad of others) with a deft intellect and resolution to present them in a raw and appropriate way, suitable to the situation and era. Of course, race is a huge element of the piece and it handles it smartly, showing both good and bad on each side.

Detroit has a handful of excellent performances in the mix too. John Boyega provides a nuanced and powerful performance as Melvin Dismukes, a private security guard working for the side that so openly victimises people like him; his character is a musing on acceptance versus tolerance and Boyega handles it superbly and with stead. Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell and Jacob Latimore, in particular, are convincing and emotive as some of the police brutality victims, with Ben O'Toole and Jack Reynor towering as their abusers. However, Detroit's scene-stealer is Will Poulter; whether my perception of him has been tainted by his goofy, hammy performance in We're The Millers or not, that kid is a talent. Here, he plays a towering, brutal and villainous figure leading the systematic racism against the people of the motel with conviction and certitude. In an astounding turn that deserves a Best Supporting performance at the very least, this is bound to be a performance he is remembered for - and rightly so. He may just be the most loathsome villain of the year which boils down to the real-life figure he is based around and Poulter's astounding performance. 

After the masterclass that is act two, act three dips again in quality. It is by no means as rocky as the first act and features some superlative filmmaking (the court case is particularly interesting) but it again lacks a guidance and support to tether itself to. It ends up feeling perfunctory rather than earnest, although that could be fatigue from the heavy two-hours before this point, which really alters the pace and momentum of the piece. Deeply uneven, this final act scales back on the issues presented in the first act but is a substantial step back from the outstanding middle act.

Where does the blame lie for Detroit's inconsistencies then? In all honesty, I'd place a portion of the blame in the script. Boal is a terrific talent, as demonstrated with his sharp and impressive second, but for some reason otherwise struggles to anchor the film. It is unconfident in its first act and uncertain with where to place the emphasis in the final act, resulting in a script that needs further grounding and focus. It is also partly responsible for Detroit's biggest downfall: that blasted runtime. It's lack of self-control compounds pretty much every other issue, hampering the momentum, pace and very often the all-important tone. It is astounding just how Detroit could be improved with a major tightening.

Detroit's dramatisation of a tragic chapter in African-Americans story is a blistering and intense one, leading to an uncomfortable viewing experience that is still all-too familiar nowadays given the fraught political backdrop we are currently experiencing. It is gut-wrenching and nerve-shattering in its second act and glimpses of phenomenal film-making can be seen elsewhere - but it is so uneven and over-bloated in other instances that you cannot help but feel disappointed that a tighter, leaner picture couldn't be offered as the final product.


Summary: Detroit features one of the most nerve-shattering, gut-wrenching and blistering acts of the year, centred around an important, tragic chapter from US history - but with so much extra padding and a hesitancy in post-production, Detroit fails to become the superlative picture it so deserves to be.