Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 21, 2017)
Compared to ex-husband James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow turns out films at a fast clip. However, in real-world terms, she produces movies at a less than rapid rate.
This means 2017’s Detroit becomes only her third release over the last decade. It follows 2008’s Best Picture-winning Hurt Locker and 2012’s successful Zero Dark Thirty.
In July 1967, cops raid a party at an unauthorized nightclub. This apparently needless action inspires civil unrest that eventually leads to massive riots in racially divided Detroit.
Amidst this violence, matters coalesce at the Algiers Hotel. During a party, rowdy guest Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) decides to fire blanks in the direction of law enforcement.
This brings a swarm of National Guardsmen and cops upon the hotel, and matters grow more tense from there. In particular, shady police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) decides to solve this “crime” and uses potentially violent methods to wage his campaign of retribution.
When Hurt Locker won Best Picture, it did so as one of the lowest-grossing Oscar-winners ever. Actually, if adjusted for inflation, the film’s $17 million US might make it number one all-time on that ignominious list.
Bigelow found a bigger audience with the reasonably strong $95 million of Zero Dark Thirty, but Detroit went back to the Hurt Locker template. With a gross of only $16 million US, audiences avoided it despite positive reviews.
Detroit came out in early August 2017, a move that smacks of “counter-programming”: give audiences something more “adult” to contrast with the summer blockbusters and hope to rake in the bucks. This failed, and I imagine subject matter influenced the film’s lack of commercial success.
Let’s face it: Detroit may take place 50 years ago, but the topic of racially-based police conflicts feels all too current for Americans. The film hit screens around the same time as the violence in Charlottesville, and the current political climate abets these tensions. Most people go to movies to escape, so the film’s story likely turned off a lot of prospective viewers due to its all-too-real overtones.
I can’t claim I think it’s a tragedy that moviegoers avoided Detroit, as I find myself less than enchanted by it. While the film tells a powerful story and boasts some good moments, like Bigelow’s other efforts, it feels less than satisfying as a whole.
My biggest issue comes from Bigelow’s treatment of the material, as I think she tends to “dumb down” a lot of nuance and subtext. As seen in her two prior movies, Bigelow paints in broad strokes and she doesn’t leave a lot of room for complexity or depth.
This trait befalls Detroit as well, and this means the movie bludgeons us with its attitudes. Rather than delve into concerns on both sides of the conflict, it largely turns the story into a one-dimensional horror film with Krauss as the bogeyman.
Does this mean I believe bad cops like Krauss didn’t – and don’t – exist? Of course not – there are plenty of horrible people in the world, and I don’t doubt that events like those depicted in the movie occurred.
It’s Bigelow’s lack of subtlety that once again becomes the issue, as she gives the story no real depth. As noted, she turns the material into standard thriller/scary movie fare, as we’re stuck with a madman who terrorizes innocents.
The film’s length doesn’t help. Superficial as the treatment may be, Detroit might at least manifest the intended tension with a shorter running time, but at almost two and a half hours, it loses steam as it goes.
This means that whatever drama and anxiety the events muster starts to dissipate, as it just feels like the tale becomes redundant. There’s only so much of these fascist cops that we can take before the impact lessens.
Detroit does boast some good performances, and I appreciate the message. As mentioned, the current climate seems ripe for a story of this sort, and the movie reminds us that police brutality has been a menace for eons.
I just would’ve liked something with more depth. Detroit takes an important story and makes it too simplistic.