Deadly Motel Misunderstandings in ‘Detroit’

(2017—Director: Kathryn Bigelow)

Low ★★★½ (out of 5 stars)

“I’m just going to assume you’re all criminals.” — Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) to those held at the Algiers Motel 

Potential spoilers below

It has been five years since producer-director Kathryn Bigelow’s last film, Zero Dark Thirty. Despite that film’s critical acclaim, the controversy surrounding the film’s portrayal of waterboarding crippled its Oscar contention shortly before the nominations came out. Its sole Oscar win (in a tie, no less) was a disappointment compared to the six statuettes of Ms. Bigelow’s 2009 breakout awards darling The Hurt Locker (including Best Director, the first ever awarded to a woman). Yet Ms. Bigelow remains a director from whom one can expect a potential Oscar contender. With Detroit, however, Ms. Bigelow and her regular writer and co-producer Mark Boal might not even have to wait for some last-minute glitch in their awards hopes since those may have already fizzled upon landing.

It is late July, 1967. Race riots and civil unrest rage around the 12th Street neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. When gunshots ring out at the nearby Algiers Hotel, the Detroit Police Department and Michigan’s State Police and Army National Guard arrive and seize the premises. Amidst the tense atmosphere, the Detroit police officers at the scene begin to overlook procedure in their attempts to wring out confessions from the intimidated guests.

Clearly, not everyone will survive the night.

The cerebral intensity and gritty action unique to Kathryn Bigelow’s renowned directorial vision is not lost here. One can grasp with ease the grave violence that occurs in Detroit, established from the film’s introductory voiceover montage over Jacob Lawrence-style animated paintings. The top-notch sound work by Paul N.J. Ottosson’s team and Barry Ackroyd’s grimy cinematography surround viewers in a perilous urban war zone.

Detroit, however, runs into the same issues I had with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk from a few weeks ago. It paints a wide brush on a key, yet underrated historical event filled with adversity. It loses the emotional specificity tied to a limited amount of characters that most audiences find familiar, comfortable, and more resonant. This tactic is more justified in Dunkirk, whose wider scope, greater significance on the world stage, and tight runtime combine for a spectacular substitute.

Compared to Nolan’s war drama, Detroit does try to create more standout personalities in its ensemble, even though the Mark Boal-penned screenplay sells them short. Algee Smith (Earth to Echo) gives a charismatic and soulful breakout turn as a vocal group frontman eager for a record deal. Will Poulter (The Revenant) avoids settling for one-dimensional evil for most of his screentime as the film’s main racist police officer. Yet even that finds its way into his quieter scenes. When Poulter’s character is not over-asserting his authority on helpless African-American folks, he weasels his way out of accusations that paint him in a negative light. Detroit paints him as racist to the marrow, yet I sense he would act the same way with Caucasian suspects. Thus, I see him more as corrupt in general as opposed to racist.

Detroit offer far less time under the spotlight for its other three other main authority figures. Ben O’Toole (Hacksaw Ridge) as Poulter’s close colleague deserved more screentime to match Poulter’s prejudice and menace, while the film treats poor Jack Reynor (Sing Street) as that working pair’s third wheel. Turning John Boyega (Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens) into a flat bystander disappoints me the most about Detroit. One can argue that his character’s passivity makes him less as a virtuous security guard at the wrong place at the wrong time and more complicit in the horrific proceedings. In retrospect, it was unwise for Detroit’s marketing team to place Boyega at the center of the film’s trailers since even the film forgets that he is in it.

From Boyega, I reevaluate the rest of the ensemble. It is then that I realize that Detroit, despite its smaller-scale technical prowess, boasts a weak Mark Boal-penned script that comes across as heavy-handed and overbearing. The film could have avoided that by confining itself to the perspectives of either Algee Smith to contrast the violence with his vibrant character’s musical ambitions or John Boyega with a uniquely harrowing, Son of Saul-esque tunnel vision point of view. Detroit could have even gone the villain-centered route and frame itself around the corrupt yet nuanced aggression of Will Poulter. Instead, the film settles for imperfect, if hard-hitting, ensemble drama that tries to do too much and runs twenty minutes too long. That is a shame, since all the actors clearly show great efforts in developing more complex personalities than what the script affords them.

After a five-year break from cinema, it does not surprise me that Ms. Bigelow was bound for a rocky return. Detroit does not drone like an average, by-the-textbook historical drama. It is dark, edgy, and puts viewers through the ringer without a doubt. It does, unfortunately, give off that sense of intellectual and emotional imposement—the opposite extreme of how to educate viewers on an underrated historical event. The best historical dramas first serve as entertaining and beautiful spectacles that rouse audiences into researching the events on their own. Detroit hammers all that into 143 minutes that I suspect many may never want to revisit.

(Parental Note: Detroit has been rated R by the MPAA “for strong violence and pervasive language.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong threat, violence, language” and L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for “intense bloody violence and torture, brief female nudity and pervasive profane and crude language.” Racially-charged outbursts, fiery arguments, and threats to take lives between armed officials and mostly African-American civilians dominate much of the film’s runtime. A man gets hit by fire from a police officer’s shotgun early in the film. Despite evading the policemen, the man later dies from loss of blood. There is talk of prostitution. A man uses a toy gun to make a fake threat at another man and then casually shoots it out the window to arouse the nearby authorities. The scare tactics used by the policemen may disturb viewers. A fleeing man gets hit by a shotgun blast and bleeds to death on the floor. A police officer rips off a woman’s clothes. When a man refuses to deny the presence of a dead body when offered to walk to free by a police officer, the police officer shoots him three times with his pistol. After the victim falls wounded to the floor, another police officer finishes the job offscreen with a shotgun blast.)

R.N.B.

About the Author
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature-film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard is currently pursuing his M.A. in Biblical Theology (Catechetical track) at JPCatholic after graduating from the school in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting).