Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s latest collaboration (following The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) is provocative, infuriating, emotionally exhausting, and entirely timely. Like those previous two films, it utilizes a gritty, no-punches-pulled docu-drama style to explore a brutal war zone — one within America’s own borders.
The movie begins with the raid of an illegal after-hours bar in Detroit’s Near West Side on July 23, 1967 and the subsequent rioting that followed, and then sidesteps into the notorious Algiers Motel incident that occurred two nights later and resulted in the deaths of three African-American men at the hands of the Detroit P.D.
The characters are a blend of factual — such as security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), US Army veteran Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), and aspiring singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) among others — as well as fictionalized (for legal reasons) creations such as Detroit beat cop Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). Otherwise, the film sticks close to the historical record: the officers, mistaking a starter pistol for sniper fire, storm the nearby motel. With one suspect dead and no weapon to show for it, the officers — with tacit support from the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard — violate the civil rights of nine people via an interrogation that devolves into beatings and a “death game” that claims two more lives.
The sequence plays out in real-time, and it’s an appropriately exhausting and unsettling endurance test for the viewer. To her credit, Bigelow keeps us emotionally engaged for the duration. She and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Captain Phillips) employ the same cinema verité style they mined from Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers for use in Zero Dark Thirty, and mix in archival footage to achieve a degree of verisimilitude that is effective, but not as impressive or immersive as Algiers or Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday.
At times, the movie seems to struggle with oversimplifying the events and the people involved. It wins that fight most of the time, but in some instances it’s a bit messy, which is appropriate. Detroit is a chaotic, urgent, and eye-opening experience — but so were the events it depicts.