Detroit Review

6 Aug

It’s easy to try to do too much with a historical film. As a filmmaker, you might feel the need to cast a wide net over the events in question, going down a laundry list of important events in an effort to do due diligence to history. I prefer the approach taken by Detroit, which zeroes in on the Algiers Motel and stays with it for over an hour. The film certainly provides context for the tensions that flare in that motel, opening the film with an excellent prologue that places you right in the heat of the Detroit riots. However, Bigelow’s concerns do not lie with the riots as a whole; rather, she and Boal are interested in how the backdrop of the riots feed into an event like the one at the Algiers Motel. The approach has some flaws, of course. Are there some meandering scenes with iffy dialogue? Yes. Are there moments a bit lacking in nuance? You bet. Does the character development sometimes fail to match up with the intense emotions we’re asked to feel for the characters? Sure. Are various perspectives omitted? Absolutely.

The good thing is that Bigelow is a master at her craft, and the sequence itself at the motel is consequently one of the most harrowing cinematic experiences I’ve been through in a while. Bigelow lives in the here and now, forcefully grabbing her audience members and slamming their faces against an impenetrable glass wall an inch away from the events. We can watch. We’re close enough to see every single emotion. We’re close enough to touch, to help. We can’t help, though, because this is history and history has already happened and we’re oftentimes powerless to stop its roll. This is a real-life horror film that plays out with such furious intensity, that is handled with such poise and precision, that gives due weight to various character dilemmas and complexities even despite its flaws. It is well cast and well acted. It is frequently difficult to watch. It is visceral, first class filmmaking, a blistering portrait of humanity and inhumanity and the ways in which they clash amidst the crumbling of human decency. It’s persistently bleak and shocking, yet it details events that aren’t particularly surprising in this day and age. That’s exactly the problem.


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