Kathryn Bigelow has spent the last three decades or so perfecting her skills as a thriller director, from Near Dark all the way up to Zero Dark Thirty. She is a master of building and releasing tension, of getting an audience’s heart rate up and of making even true stories feel wildly unpredictable to the viewer. Few filmmakers have ever done the taut, edge-of-your-seat docudrama so well.
With Detroit, she may have outdone herself.
Set during the 1967 Detroit riots, Bigelow’s latest film chronicles the true story of the Algiers Motel Incident, which the film’s marketing calls “one of the most terrifying secrets in American history.” That sets the film not as traditional “based on a true story” Hollywood fare, but as an attempt to unearth something dark and primal at the heart of our country. Detroit calls its shot and the knocks it out of the park. This is a movie that is very, very hard to watch. Watch it anyway.
The Algiers Motel Incident happened when police working during the riots heard shots (which turned out to be from a starter’s pistol) come from the motel’s annex building on the night of July 25. They responded, suspecting a sniper or cop-killing gunman, setting off a maelstrom of horrific consequences. A trio of racist cops (Will Poulter, Ben O'Toole and Jack Reynor) charge in with a “for your own good” mentality that quickly gives way to full-blown cruelty. An aspiring young singer (Algee Smith) and his cousin (Jacob Latimore) are in the hotel trying to let off some steam after a blown gig. A veteran (Anthony Mackie) just home from the war and is there reconnecting with friends and family. Two young girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) are in the motel visiting friends from Ohio. And a security guard (John Boyega) working a late shift at a local store, comes over to try to help and suddenly finds himself caught in the middle.
The way Bigelow builds to this convergence is predictable, almost casual, like she’s going to show us something we’ve seen before. Her famous handheld camera flits back and forth between domestic life and looting, between police violence and benevolence. In between, actual photos and footage from the riots play as Governor George Romney and President Lyndon Johnson call for an end to the violence in the city. As you hear their words, you realize you might have heard them about Ferguson in 2014 or Baltimore in 2015. A pattern emerges. Bigelow’s camera never seems to take a breath. There’s no time to really get to know any one character, barely time to match a name with a face. The effect is a headlong hurtling into the film’s major confrontation, but it also creates a sense of near-anonymity for many of these characters. Change their costumes and hairstyles and they could just as easily be going about their lives right now.
Then it happens. A handful of terrified suspects, a body on the floor and a group of menacing police officers out for answers or blood, whichever they get first. It’s hard to fully articulate the levels of racism and cruelty and absolutely corrupt institutionalized power at work. Maybe it’s better to go in blind. As with the film’s setup, Bigelow lures you into a sense of predictability. You think you know what you’re about to see. You think you understand how far racists would go into the ‘60s. Then you’re hit with just how torturous these events were and are.
This is where all of Bigelow’s gifts as a director of thrillers come into play. Everything from the bomb defusals in The Hurt Locker to the torture sequences in Zero Dark Thirty has been leading to this moment. Another filmmaker might have played it safer, pulled back from the brutality or mapped out a more by-the-numbers sequence of events (what happened that night is still somewhat in dispute). Bigelow shows no such reticence, pushing her cameras so close to the anguished faces of her cast you’re worried you’ll taste their sweat. It is absolutely harrowing.
Bigelow is aided in pulling off this feat by an astonishing cast, led by Poulter as a truly terrible cop (and here, that’s a compliment to the caliber of his performance) and Boyega as a black man whose small amount of authority makes him an enemy to certain people of both races. But these are not flashy roles. There are no epic monologues or Oscar speeches, no glory shots. Each and every member of this cast is dealing in raw, exhausting human emotion. It’s exhilarating and heartbreaking to watch each of them pull it off.
There are moments in Detroit best watched through laced fingers. But the film is too compelling to ignore. Though it’s become cliche to say films about civil rights in the '60s apply to our current situation, Detroit seems to resonate at a different pitch. The film gets right in your face and dares you to deny that this kind of racial hatred isn’t still a part of America. That’s potent enough but you put this group of master filmmakers together to tell this story, it is an absolutely devastating experience, and one of the best films of the year.
Detroit opens in select cities Friday, and in wide release August 4.