More than most directors, Kathryn Bigelow has earned her stripes in onscreen combat. A virtuoso of blunt-force action and moral ambiguity, she is fluent in the lingua franca of blood and sweat and strategic hot spots (Iraq, Pakistan, a Soviet submarine) scattered across the globe. But she’s never made a war movie quite like this one: an American horror story rooted so deeply and shamefully in home soil that it is still painful to watch half a century after the true events it’s based on took place.
Like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty before it, her Detroit is a battlefield, though hardly a level one. After a terse prologue, the drama plunges directly into the seething, sweltering summer of 1967: An all-black after-hours club celebrating the return of a soldier from Vietnam is targeted in a routine raid. Without a viable back exit, the arresting officers are forced to parade partygoers from the door to waiting police vans. A crowd gathers and boos; bottles and epithets are thrown. Like so many other parts of the country already corroded by decades of fear and loathing on both sides of the racial divide, the city is a powder keg, and a spark isn’t hard to find.
As the streets burn, a motley crew assembles at the shabby but lively Algiers Motel: an aspiring R&B singer (Algee Smith) and his sweet-faced hype man (Jacob Latimore); a weary veteran (Anthony Mackie); two freewheeling white girls (Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) dipping their toes in the sexual revolution. Recent strangers quick-bonded by heat and alcohol, they flirt by the courtyard pool and debate the merits of John Coltrane. Then one guest (Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell) pops off a starter pistol as a prank; the shots provoke a rattled onslaught of law enforcement, including local officers Krauss (Will Poulter) and Demens (Jack Reynor), members of the National Guard, and John Boyega’s night watchman Dismukes. What follows is historical record, albeit still a disputed one — even after several court cases, dozens of news articles and eyewitnesses, and 50 years of distance. (Bigelow’s longtime collaborator Mark Boal grounds his script largely in known facts and new research, with a requisite dose of artistic license.)
As the force’s unlikely alpha dog, Poulter (The Revenant, We’re the Millers) is a chilling enigma. A rogue Boy Scout with a sterile blank where his conscience should be, he looks like Howdy Doody and kills as casually as a kid playing videogames — shooting a terrified looter in the back over a few groceries even after a colleague reminds him that they’ve been explicitly told to let low-level offenders go. (He’s also one of several actors, including Boyega, Murray, and Reynor, who hail from the U.K. but deliver seamless American accents.) Boyega is equally good in an ambiguous, sometimes thankless role: the wary peacemaker who gets “Uncle Tom” spat at him from one camp and a derogatory “boy” from the other, he’s quietly magnetic; it’s a pleasure just to watch him think.
Though a lot happens, Bigelow doesn’t juice the narrative. Much of the movie lives in small impressionistic moments, or in the prickling stillness before a scene explodes into brutal Straw Dogs-style violence. Her immersive filmmaking has the visceral documentary feel of firsthand experience: handheld cameras shudder and jolt with on-the-fly immediacy; jagged edges are left unsmoothed by quick cutaways or atmospheric scores. (When music is used it’s mostly organic, spilling from stages or transistor radios.) For better and worse, she also leaves psychology on the cutting-room floor; hardly any screen time is wasted on motivation or backstory, but her characters do share one trait: a singular, almost fanatical drive. Like Jeremy Renner’s brittle bomb defuser in The Hurt Locker, Jessica Chastain’s Osama bin Laden-obsessed CIA agent in Zero Dark, or even Keanu Reeves’ wave-ripping undercover agent in Point Break, they each chase down rabbit holes with a fixation that borders on mania.
Bigelow’s own focus comes back again and again to the ugly tug of power, usually attached to a badge or a bully pulpit. A beat cop casually cupping a woman’s backside as he props her into a paddy wagon; the guardsman who smirks and asks Boyega for sugar when he offers fresh coffee (“Don’t push it,” comes the tight-lipped reply); the long, freighted pause before another carefully picks out the word Negro. In a nation that may be as divided as it’s ever been, her indictment of what amounts to a sort of institutionalized domestic terrorism will almost certainly lead to accusations of misplaced white guilt and cinematic scale-tipping. Detroit’s aim feels simpler than that, though, and sadder: not a political treatise on the relative matter of blue or black lives, but a sincere effort to illuminate a singularly dark chapter in history — and a stark reminder of exactly what gets lost when human beings fail to take care of their own. A–