The second act of Detroit – a new film by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow; her first since 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty – plays like a horror film, which was unexpected from a film that is billed as being about the 1967 Detroit riots. Ostensibly, that is what Detroit is about, but the centerpiece of what Bigelow and longtime writing partner Mark Boal want to do is explore what happened during the concurrent Algiers Motel incident. And they do so with the same type of precision that they did in Zero Dark Thirty.
Though, the lead up to the Algiers Motel and what happens after doesn’t have quite the same focus. It seems obvious that Bigelow and Boal wanted to just make a movie about the Algiers – and they pretty much did – but realized they didn’t quite have a full movie without at least some setup. Even at the end of the film, there’s text that tells us the filmmakers did their best to put together the events that happened that night using eyewitness accounts. It’s like Bigelow and Boal wanted to make a piece of historical journalism surrounding the events of one night, then the movie part comes second.
The first act of Detroit serves just to introduce us to all of the people who will wind up being at the hotel. Among them is a security guard named Melvin (John Boyega) who is doing his best to keep the peace between local residents and the National Guard; a singer, Larry (Algee Smith), who dreams of being signed by Motown; a soldier who has just returned from Vietnam (Anthony Mackie); and two young women visiting from Ohio (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever). And we also meet Will Poulter’s Officer Krauss of the Detroit P.D. – an officer who isn’t against shooting a looter in the back point blank. Poulter is so effective at playing a racist police officer that I find myself still actively disliking the real Will Poulter.
The local authorities and the National Guard think they hear sniper fire coming from the Algiers Motel (it turns out it was just a starter pistol), which leads to a horrifying interrogation of everyone in the motel, which lasts well over an hour of the film’s running time.
It’s here that the film plays like a horror film. Poulter’s Krauss leads a horrifying, racist, and sociopathic interrogation that feels a lot longer than this scene’s already long running time. Every second feels like a minute. Poulter and his police buddies (which include Jack Reynor) play a sick, sadistic games with the “suspects.” One by one, Poulter’s character will tell someone that they’d better confess or they’d be taken into a room and executed on the spot. (At this point, Krauss had already shot and killed man who was trying to flee the motel.) When the “suspect” pleads with Krauss that he doesn’t know anything, he’s taken to a room and we hear gunfire. At first, it’s (as Krauss puts it) a game – he’s not really shooting anyone, but the people in the hallway don’t know that. But as you can probably guess, this sick, sadistic form of “interrogation” gets out of hand and even worse things start to happen.
I cannot stress enough that this is not a short scene. All of this keeps going for over an hour. It’s extremely uncomfortable, which is the point, and I suspect that Bigelow and Boal want you to feel like you’re in that hotel.
Part of me thinks that Bigelow and Boal should have just gone all in on the Algiers Motel section of this story. I mean, to be fair, they did, but it’s kind of being sold as a movie about the Detroit riots in general – the name of the movie is Detroit after all – when, in reality, it’s about one specific, horrifying event that occurred during these riots. And this all took me by surprise, but the truth is this part – which, again, makes up the overwhelming majority of the film – is when Detroit works best.
It feels like a horror movie because what happened at the Algiers is truly horrifying. Bigelow has a knack for building tension to an impossible level where an audience member is looking for any sort of relief – think of the scenes involving bomb diffusion in The Hurt Locker, or the scene of trailing Bin Laden’s courier in Zero Dark Thirty. And when we’re at the motel, Bigelow does that here to great effect – but once the tension was over in those past movies, there was a sense of nothing with the characters. We see Jeremy Renner not being able to cope with mundane things like buying groceries. We watch Jessica Chastain finally have one moment to herself and she breaks down. Bigelow is a master at showing that dichotomy.
But with Detroit, once the horrors of that night have ended, the repercussions are far from over. And Detroit is both very aware of this and also doesn’t quite know what to do with itself once it ends the documentation of that terrible night. This is not a movie with a tidy ending. And probably rightfully so.
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