Kathryn Bigelow is no stranger to capturing a war zone on film, in fact doing so got her an Oscar for her troubles. The award-winning director of The Hurt Locker and the Academy Award nominated Zero Dark Thirty not only received critical acclaim for making bloody good films but also made massive statements that few could ignore. It’s in Detroit though, where she finds a battlefield very close to home, one that goes to great effort to allow wounds to reopen even now in today’s social climate, making it her most important film to date.
Set during the prolific Detroit riots of 1963, our eyes are cast on the Algier Hotel, when after shots are fired from its vicinity, the National Guard and members of the Detroit Police Department descend on the establishment. It’s clear from the off that it’s a misunderstanding, but that doesn’t stop lawless lawman Will Poulter kicking in the door and making one bad decision that spirals out of control, leading to the hotel’s guest to face the wall as an interrogation gets underway.
Already a dab hand at displaying drastic means to search for information in Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow focuses on the scare tactics of mock executions in cordoned off rooms to get the others to talk. They don’t, and why would they? A terror fills the hallway that leaves those being held at gunpoint too petrified to say anything. Through this, Bigelow’s picture quickly establishes a tone that would be more at home in a horror film than anything.
As expected, with such an important and undeniably taught topic, everyone involved is championing their position in this supposed ‘death game’, no matter what side they’re on. The previously mentioned Poulter is petrifying as Krauss, wielding a shotgun and most the power on-screen. Something worth considering is that he was actually the original choice for Pennywise in the new IT remake, but it’s here he proves all he needs is a badge and a gun to be a terrifying character. With his finger hovering over the trigger, there’s a worrying level of sanity to his process making it all the more unsettling because of it. Begging his captives to pray for their safety is a harrowing scene to sit through and Poulter controls it brilliantly, as much as we hate him doing so.
But if the young UK star stands at one end of this unsettling scenario, barking orders and infighting fear into civilians, John Boyega steps up as the silent bystander trying to stop things spiralling even further out of control. Saying very little but providing more in his presence, his failed effort to play peacemaker displays undeniable echoes of Denzel Washington, it’s so strong. Light years away from The Force Awakens, this is a glimpse at the sort of roles that will get Boyega attention come award season. Reserved, righteous and a presence that boasts the aforementioned acting great, he may not have as much control of the situation as Poulter’s character, but he wields just as much.
Supporting our leading men in their unspoken battle are the likes of Anthony Mackie, Hannah Murray, and the commendable Algee Smith as Larry Reed; a struggling singer whose most notable moment sees him ordered to carry a tune at gunpoint whilst the rest kneel and pray for their own safety. His voice shakes down the hallway and is rife with emotion. It’s just one of many moments that make Detroit more of an endurance test than a film.
Therein lies Bigelow’s bittersweet success of telling a story that can’t be ignored as it unravels. This isn’t a history lesson, it’s a mirror that’s dusted off and held up to the current state of affairs. Since its release audiences have already stressed that it’s this reason that Bigelow shouldn’t be relishing in such a subject matter. On the contrary, it’s our own fault that she’s having to tell this story in the first place, and what an expertly told one it is, too.