Detroit Movie Review
Uplifting and lighthearted, Detroit commands your attention even when it’s bludgeoning you over the head with its niceties. There is a short, two-hour and 20-minute stretch, though, where this film is also depressing and maddening as hell.
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) directs this drama that drops the audience into the boiler pot riot of 1967 and focuses on the Algiers Motel incident, in which Detroit police officers killed three unarmed black teenagers and beat up nine others. When I said “uplifting and lighthearted,” I was referring to one scene where some people are singing and dancing in a nightclub.
To say that Detroit is important and timely would be an understatement, as issues of racial prejudice by police have “resurfaced” in recent years, forcing serious conversation (or dismissal) in the media and political spheres.
As a movie, Detroit is harder to describe. Is it amazing? Overly heavy-handed? I’m not sure.
Kathryn Bigelow is one of the best directors working today, and she brings the same gritty, atmospheric tension she applied to Zero Dark Thirty to Detroit. The movie looks terrific, and once the Algiers situation begins, Bigelow reaches out, grabs you by the throat and begins to squeeze, relentlessly. Detroit is intense, powerful and gripping.
And yet, there’s something that holds me back from declaring Detroit a masterpiece--I’m just not sure what that is. The movie is well written, as Bigelow has once again collaborated with her ZDK and Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal. The cast is strong across the board. The movie is suspenseful, depressing, disturbing and educational.
Few of the cast members truly stand out. Algee Smith is terrific in what is arguably the lead protagonist role, but will I remember his performance a year from now? Will Poulter, best known for his nerdy comedic role in We’re the Millers, delivers the most memorable and career-changing performance of the group--as the film’s villain--though there are times when his character borders on ham-handedness; he’s an evil character with minimal layers. And John Boyega, the most recognizable face of the bunch, is an enigma; his character is poorly defined and his performance suffers as a result.
After Bigelow offers an adequate overview of the riots--how they began, how the police responded--she ramps things up once the film moves indoors. The Algiers Hotel stuff in shocking and infuriating, but to some degree it’s one-note; you have the bad cops on one side, the innocent people on the other, and not a lot of nuance in between. The film is intended to evoke anger, and it does, but is that enough?
Detroit is a statement film, and Bigelow makes a powerful statement. But Detroit is a film that needs time to soak in, and a week later, it hasn’t soaked in yet.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.