Movie Review | Detroit
Movie Summary: Fact-based drama set during the 1967 Detroit riots in which a group of rogue police officers respond to a complaint with retribution rather than justice on their minds. (IMDb)
Detroit poses an interesting question: if a movie stays utterly true to its narrative and the themes within, but fails to be a satisfying experience from a dramatic viewpoint, can it still be considered a good film?
The issue is, if the situation was reversed and it was more dramatically satisfying, it could easily be seen as betraying the message it’s trying to send. In the end, I fell into the first camp as this is a movie first and foremost, not a documentary with dramatised sections.
It doesn’t really help that the film opens detailing facts known about the 1967 riots in Detroit, then introduces us to the characters that the audience spends the rest of the time with, including a huge chunk of the duration set at the Algiers motel, where three black men were killed.
As the ending text states, most of what actually happened at that motel has never been completely confirmed and so the dramatisation of those events has come from the people involved, but does lead to a strange feeling of inauthenticity – a dramatic ‘uncanny valley’ almost.
Or to put it another way: I have absolutely no doubt that the events we see on-screen are how those involved remember them unfolding, but while almost certainly as close to 100% accuracy as we’ll ever get, the sheer terror those involved must have felt at the time will no doubt have influenced everything they remember about that night.
That terror comes about from the chief antagonist of the film: Will Poulter’s truly hideous Detroit police officer Krauss, who thrives in an environment that allows him to abuse the black community as he sees fit – his final fate is one of the most frustrating outcomes of the entire film.
It’s really not to see how much this film is relevant to today’s America, where the black community is being treated almost as horrifically as this film depicts the Sixties. Krauss would probably be a highly-decorated member of a disturbingly-large number of the USA’s police departments in Trump's America.
Special mention should go to John Boyega delivering yet another fantastic performance, in addition to Algee Smith, who both undergo similar character development across the duration of this film, showing how easily abuse can lead to radicalisation – even if it’s only emotional here.
It should also be mentioned how well the level of tension is maintained throughout Detroit’s run-time. Dunkirk was over an hour shorter and, by trying to make every scene tense, made none of them feel that impactful – Detroit leaves you wondering what terrible thing will happen next.
And that’s the key difference: Dunkirk tries to force you to feel the tension, Detroit simply presents one unbearable event after another and lets the audience engage with the film on their own terms and works much better as a result.
In fact, it works so well that you genuinely won’t notice the film’s near three-hour duration at all, because it has that pacing of allowing dips and breathers between the truly tense scenes that Dunkirk was lacking.
The only real downside to the length of the film is how much shaky-cam there is present. Yes, it’s being used to present an ‘authentic’, street-level experience rather than a typical omniscient observer’s angle, but you might finish the film with a bit of a headache as a result.
Detroit is a very good film that suffers from the paradox of being dramatically and thematically incompatible, despite being utterly engaging and incredibly performed by everyone involved. If truth be told, it’s difficult to see how the film could be improved, but it doesn’t change the fact that as soon as Detroit had finished, I wanted to see another movie with a more satisfying finale.