'Detroit' film review: Serviceable drama fails to hit its mark
The horrifying timeliness of the Algiers Motel incident is brought back to the zeitgeist in "Detroit" (opening in theaters nationwide August 4), a perfectly fine drama that probably should have been better given acclaimed director Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty") and its vitally important subject matter.
In short: Set against the violent backdrop of the 1967 Detroit riots, a confrontation between police officers and people trying to find refuge from the violence escalates quickly, ending in the deaths of several young African American men. Algee Smith, John Boyega, Will Poulter, Hannah Murray, Jack Reynor and Anthony Mackie star.
Bigelow's kinetic style firmly establishes the violent chaos of the city on fire. The handheld camera work never allows the audience any sort of firm footing - an extremely effective cinéma vérité style that throws the audience directly into the front lines of the riot. The first act clearly establishes a racial tension that feels like a powder keg ready to blow with the slightest provocation. The minimal plot structure of the first act works to underline the anarchy and uncertainty overwhelming the city - but in a more literal sense, the first act is prolonged way of bringing all the various characters together in one place: the Algiers Motel.
The second act is, in many ways, a much different film from the first act: instead of citywide turmoil, "Detroit" becomes intimately focused on a small group of characters brought together at the Algiers. The performances Bigelow pulls from Smith, Boyega and Poulter - as well as instilling a relentlessly menacing atmosphere - keeps the second act gripping. Hard to watch - but actively engaging. As the situation at the Algiers quickly spins out of control, the ensemble cast deserves a ton of credit for constantly injecting humanity - be it terrifying, sickening or horrifying - into every frame of the second act.
The third act - which once again redefines the film's focus - ultimately represents the film's overall weaknesses. After the nerve-wracking tension of the first act and the brutality of the second act - the third act is ... a courtroom drama. For its many strengths, "Detroit," is tonally inconsistent.
"Detroit" is unfocused to the point of hurting its overall effectiveness. Any singular film that just addressed the 1967 Detroit riots or the Algiers Motel incident or the ensuing courtroom aftermath would better serve those subjects than this one attempt to cram all these complicated issues into one drama. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were correct in unearthing the tragically under-reported riots to the forethought of audiences - especially in these 'Black Lives Matter' times. The Algiers incident specifically deserves greater exposure and historical awareness. "Detroit" succeeds in resurfacing this horrifying incident in the public consciousness - but the film itself fails to make the impact it should. While the riots, the incident and the trial are inherently and fundamentally connected, "Detroit" doesn't quite leave the impact that it should - a mistake of unfocused execution and not related to its topics.
But the film's biggest failing it its overreliance on dramatization. Yes, by definition all movies are "dramatizations" - but "Detroit" is fundamentally defined by the events, as represented on screen, that transpired at the Algiers Motel. The entirety of the third act absolutely depends on the second act. Yet, as the film closes, it becomes alarmingly clear that the events depicted at the Algiers Motel are huge dramatizations - major plot points that occur on-screen are dramatized to fill in story gaps (because the only people who know the truth are either dead or deny the events ever happened). The on-screen "facts" are fudged or finessed just enough to remain in line with the film's thematic narrative, yet not completely contradict official court testimony. Most movies play fast and loose with "the facts" to fill gaps - but "Detroit" itself represents events (as fact) on screen that undermined by the film's third act. It becomes an exercise in self defeat.
Narrative films - especially ones based on true events - should not be treated as documentaries. But "Detroit" portrays events that likely happened in real life but without any undeniable evidence. What's worse: these massive presumptions are key to the third act and critically undercut the rest of the film. At one point a character admits "things were said" - but "Detroit" only implies what might have been said, and makes zero effort to firmly establish exactly what was said. "Detroit" goes to great lengths to viscerally establish certain facts, then frustratingly leaves vital other "facts" vague or open to interpretation.
Final verdict: While "Detroit" is a serviceable dramatization, the Algiers Motel incident would probably be better served by an unflinching documentary rather than this uneven docudrama.
"Detroit" opens in theaters nationwide. The drama is rated R for strong violence and pervasive language and has a running time of 143 minutes.