Based on a true incident that happened in Detroit in 1967, Detroit is an intense, infuriating, engrossing return to top form for Kathryn Bigelow, a director I have always enjoyed, despite not loving her past few projects as much as many other people.
Things kick off with a police raid on a club that leads to a riot. African Americans feel, quite rightly, that they are being unduly picked on by authorities. With rocks being thrown, stores being looted, and properties being vandalised, it's not long until permission is given to back up the police with the National Guard and Army bods. Against this backdrop of racial tension, the members of a vocal group on the verge of great success decide to relax and party in their hotel. Someone mucking about at the party decides that they will have fun with a starter gun . . . and that is when things really start to go downhill. The police surround, and enter, the building. And they're not leaving without being satisfed by their own level of justice.
As mentioned in the film itself, this isn't a 100% factual representation. It's a depiction of an event provided after sifting through a variety of conflicting accounts of what happened on that night. But it certainly feels as if writer Mark Boal doesn't ever veer too far away from the truth. Whether things were twisted to make them more cinematic or not, this is a masterclass in character sketches, ratcheting tension, and how to shade morally bankrupt figures without making them seem completely inhuman.
Bigelow has been working with material this tense for some time, with moments of The Hurt Locker being the most obvious example, and she's a dab hand at it (to say the least). Those scenes dealt with physical explosives. Detroit focuses on a situation that viewers know could explode at any moment. Things are bad, but everyone involved knows that one wrong move could make things a hell of a lot worse.
It helps that the cast are all very much up to the task in hand. Algee Smith and Anthony Mackie are two of the main men being held by the police, with the latter a war veteran who prompts one or two individuals to consider changing their tack. John Boyega is on the scene, a security guard torn between his duties as an employee and his desire to resolve the whole situation peacefully without anyone being beaten or shot. And Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, and Ben O'Toole are the three main officers dictating how the whole scenario will play out. Reynor and O'Toole are both very good, but it's the sheer disgust coming out of the very pores of Poulter that overshadows everything else. His performance is excellent, as discomforting and scary as anything you might see in a mainstream horror movie.
It's a great shame that none of the events depicted in Detroit feel any less believable nowadays. We should be watching this in state of incredulity, shocked at what was once acceptable but has since become a rarity. And the fact that it's not hard to believe adds another layer to the whole experience. It's not comfortable, it's not pleasant, but it's one of the best films of 2017.
Order your copy of Detroit here.
USA people - get it here.