Friday, 24 November 2017

Detroit (2017) - Movie Review

The plot: On July 23rd, 1967, a riot starts on the streets of Detroit in response to a police raid. A state of emergency was declared by Governor Romney, allowing the National Guard and military officers to step in and provide assistance. In the midst of all this, a seemingly mundane incident at the Algiers Motel soon turns into calamity as the police forcefully try and get to the bottom of the situation. Even if it means shedding blood and tears to do so.

John Boyega’s star continues to rise, with his turn as a security guard thrown into the main circumstances of the plot giving the film a focal point character that goes a long way to helping make sense of the chaos on screen. Algee Smith does amazing things with his eventually traumatized singer, showing one of the worser extents that events such as those in the film can affect people, something echoed by the inclusion of innocent Fred, played superbly by Jacob Latimore who deserves a decent film after his last outing. Jason Mitchell makes a welcome return in a key role as the dangerously mischievous Carl, whose minor actions end up making what happens to the other characters feel that much more heinous. Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as two white women who are caught in the crossfire, along with seriously holding their ground in terms of character agency, also show that the abuse of power by the police on-screen isn’t strictly limited to people of colour.
Anthony Mackie absolutely hits it out of the park as the war veteran Greene, adding another layer of injustice to the proceedings while giving any actor opposite him a run for their money. And then there’s Will Poulter as the corrupt police officer Krauss and… holy hell. Even knowing how good he can be in villainous roles, like with the first Maze Runner and The Revenant, he is genuinely unsettling in every frame he’s in. He even manages to bypass how teenaged his appearance still is at this point, portraying a person who is more than familiar with using fear and intimidation to get what he wants.

There’s something immediately unsettling about this film, besides the obvious showings of aggression. It took me a good long while to figure out why exactly this film got under my skin as quickly as it did, but then it hit me: This is an incredibly quiet film. Maestro James Newton Howard is credited for music, and yet you’ll be lucky if you actually hear any of his contributions. Most of the film’s sound is happening within the film’s reality: It’s either diegetic singing, courtesy of the smooth harmonising of the Dramatics, music playing on a radio in the background or just incidental noises coming from a television set or, more frequently, a firearm.
There’s also the camera work of Barry Ackroyd, best known for his work with Paul Greengrass on films like Captain Phillips, to take into account. It’s extremely claustrophobic, staying close and personal to the actors on screen so that even their hushed tones ring out like a bell in the silence. Between the lack of traditional cinematic orchestrations and the close proximity of the footage, this film wants us to get as close to the events as possible. Every blow struck, every planted piece of evidence, every drop of blood that seep out of the heads of the oppressed; there’s no distraction from it, forcing the audience to take in all the brutality at a real-world level. I’ll admit to not being that massive on director Kathryn Bigelow’s last feature Zero Dark Thirty, which largely felt like information overload bookended by two truly stunning sequences, but here, that same intent to unsettle and turn stomachs works brilliantly.

Writer Mark Boal, outside of his other collaborations with Bigelow, started out in the early 2000’s as a journalist, writing stories predominantly about the military. That familiarity with the subject matter of war, combined with his experience in reporting real-world events, serve him very well here as this film based on a real life incident feels like it was pulled from the headlines. The film closes with a disclaimer that bits of the film were dramatised to fill in the blanks left by the testimonies of the people involved, but unless told otherwise, I wouldn’t have guessed that all that much was fabricated. It cuts too close to the bone for me to assume otherwise.
As the characters fill out their places in the checkerboard of racial tension, from the well-meaning to the self-defeating to the aggressive to the afflicted, no one here feels like a caricature or a composite meant to prove a singular point. Instead, because of how grounded the film is from the production outwards, every act feels like there is a reason for it happening and not all of them are pleasant. From the rioting in the streets to the invasions of privacy by the police, right down to how the blame constantly gets pinned on those who did the least wrong, this film shows not the racial tensions of the time but also the socio-political mindsets that both enforced it and vehemently fought against it.

All in all, this is far from the easiest film to sit through but for all the right reasons. Through the extremely adept performances, the claustrophobic cinematography and the lack of sound to distract from what is happening, this film wields its real life inspirations like a sledgehammer to show how an event now fifty years in the past still feels crushingly relevant today. Having grown up in Australia amidst stories about the similarly racially-charged Cronulla Riots, seeing the painfully familiar mayhem in this film hit a serious nerve, as all films aiming for racial commentary should. I can’t guarantee that you’ll walk out of the cinema enjoying what you just saw if you decide to check this one out, but I can guarantee that you will feel something.

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