Detroit makes for a disturbing and unnerving portrayal of real historical events, but has less success as a work of sociopolitical commentary.
Following an early morning police raid on an unlicensed weekend drinking club located on 12th Street in Detroit, Michigan, on July 23rd, 1967, the public disorder in response to the raid gives rise to violent and destructive riots over the five days thereafter. The city of Detroit is placed under a curfew during that period of time, as Michigan's National Guard begins patrolling its streets and locals spend their time either decrying the actions of the police and government or trying to keep their heads down, while carrying on with their own day-to-day-lives.
On the night of July 25th, a task force that includes Detroit police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) and store security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) - among other police officers and members of the National Guard - investigate what is believed to have been gunshots fired by a sniper, at the Algiers Motel (located about a mile away from where the riots began). 12 people at the motel, including young singer Cleveland Larry Reed (Algee Smith), are then detained and interrogated by the task force - under the threat that if they refuse to comply and reveal what really happened, they will be faced with terrible consequences.
Detroit marks the third collaboration between director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, following their work together on the Best Picture Oscar-winning Iraq War film The Hurt Locker and the Oscar-winning docudrama-thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. Similar to those movies, Detroit combines grounded journalistic storytelling with guerrilla-style filmmaking techniques - with the intention of delivering a viewing experience that is both riveting and intense, yet insightful in its portrayal of true story subject matter (in this case, the 1967 Detroit 12th Street Riot and Algiers Motel Incident). Detroit makes for a disturbing and unnerving portrayal of real historical events, but has less success as a work of sociopolitical commentary.
For the majority of its runtime, Detroit makes for an effective real-life horror/thriller, set in and around the Algiers Motel. Bigelow, collaborating here with her The Hurt Locker cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and Zero Dark Thirty production designer Jeremy Hindle, successfully creates a suffocating sense of claustrophobia and terror in those scenes that take place at the motel. Through its precise usage of you-are-there handheld camerawork and realistic sound editing (as well as sparse employment of James Newton Howard's eery score), Detroit makes the tension and fear felt by those who were present during the motel "incident" palpable, for the viewing audience. Detroit doesn't provide Bigelow with the chance to stage high-octane action/suspense sequences the way that some of her previous films have (think the compound raid from Zero Dark Thirty), but everything that transpires within the walls (and just around the outside) of the Algiers Motel makes for a terrifying set piece, in and of itself.
Unfortunately, Detroit struggles more when it comes to portraying the Algiers Motel Incident as an event that efficiently represents and encompasses the larger issues of the 1967 Detroit Riots, as a whole. The scenes immediately leading up to and set during the motel "Incident" are preceded by an animated prologue that attempts to establish the historical context for the Riots, yet does so in a ham-fisted fashion. Detroit likewise addresses the aftermath of the "Incident" and the courtroom proceedings that followed during a third act that unnecessarily rushes through the implications and fallout of what transpired in the eponymous city in the late 1960s. As a history lesson that aims to draw comparisons to the state of things in the present-day, Detroit falls short for these reasons and doesn't have much to add to the modern conversation concerning police brutality and systematic racism in the U.S. Some filmgoers may even find Detroit to be borderline exploitative in its handling of real-life history, as a result.
What (arguably) prevents Detroit from coming off as "historical torture porn" in this respect, are the strong performances from the movie's ensemble cast. Characters based on real-life people such as Melvin Dismukes and Cleveland Larry Reed (whose own testimony heavily informed Boal's screenplay here) serve more as witnesses to the atrocities committed at Algiers Motel than actual protagonists, but John Boyega and Algee Smith imbue them with raw humanity and vulnerability through their respective performances. Similarly, established character actors like Jacob Latimore, Jason Mitchell and Anthony Mackie (another Hurt Locker alum) are equally strong in their smaller roles as some of the ordinary people who found themselves as guests at the motel the night of the "Incident". The same goes for both Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as Julie Ann and Karen, the two white women who were among the people involved in the actual motel event.
Will Poulter has played villains before (namely, in The Maze Runner), but Detroit affords him the chance to play a more nuanced and complicated antagonist, in the form of Detroit police officer Philip Krauss - an amalgam of Detroit cops that were involved in the real-life events at the Algiers Motel. Krauss is much more complicated than the two-dimensional prejudiced figure in a position of authority that he could have been, thanks in no small part to Poulter's performance. On the other hand, much like the film Detroit itself, the character of Krauss is neither likely to challenge too many people's pre-conceived notions, nor likely to change too many people's outlook towards the larger social/political problems that are being addressed and raised here.
This further calls attention to the overriding issue that holds Detroit back from achieving greatness. Despite being another showcase for Bigelow's talents as a cinematic storyteller - one who excels at creating white-knuckle tension and dramatic thrills - Detroit doesn't really add much to the larger conversation that it's tapping into; meaning it comes up short as a work of social commentary. Detroit falls short of being a mold-breaker for Bigelow and Boal for the same reason, since their previous collaborations were arguably better at making for both worthwhile journalism and good cinema. Fans of Bigelow's previous work and/or those who are game to see a well-made "feel-bad" summer movie with awards season potential, will still want to give Detroit a look. That being said: in light of the film's sensitive and topical subject matter, some filmgoers might find Detroit to be upsetting for the wrong reasons, too.