Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win the Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker), and her reputation is largely associated with the formidable kinetic skills she brings to action pictures such as Strange Days and Point Break. What’s less known about her is that she came of age in the conceptual-art scene in New York in the 1970s, and that her MFA thesis film for Columbia University consisted of two men pummeling each other while a professorial observer spouted French theory about the nature of violence.
In short, Bigelow brings a lot to the table. This is truer than ever in Detroit, a hot-button horror show that returns Bigelow to her roots in a way that is both fascinating and difficult to watch. The film begins in patchwork fashion: Detroit racial tension escalates in July, 1967. For its first 20 minutes, the movie is a mosaic, complete with archival footage of President Johnson and Michigan governor George Romney.
In a slow, sneaky way—I can’t think of many movies that have edged toward disaster quite this sinuously—a musical interlude (singers denied their moment onstage when the theater is evacuated due to the violence outside) gradually lead us into what turns out to be the film’s main subject. Lead singer Larry (a remarkable performance by Algee Smith) and buddy Fred (Jacob Latimore) escape the dangerous streets by checking in at the Algiers Motel. Before long they’re swept up in a police action, as a group of young black men and two white women are beaten and threatened by white policemen. This nerve-shredding situation (based on fact) occupies the film’s long center section.
Detroit is written by reporter Mark Boal, who also scripted Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. Part of the goal here is journalistic, an observational look at how racial violence explodes—one never doubts that the movie is being made now because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the violence that birthed it. But it seems to me that what Bigelow does with the premise dates back to her conceptual-art days. The shakedown sequence in Detroit goes on so long and contains so much excruciating punishment that it turns into something close to ’60s-era guerrilla theater, where an unsuspecting audience is put through the wringer. Brian De Palma used this technique, while simultaneously satirizing it, in his 1970 film Hi Mom!
The sequence is too much, a depiction of cruelty that becomes almost sadistic itself. It’s almost nauseating at times. But Bigelow is trying to get us to feel something—what it’s like to be terrorized by the forces that are supposed to be protecting us, for one thing—and she will violate our assumptions about movie-watching to do it. Bigelow and Boal have brilliantly created a bitter pill. We want oppressed characters to fight back and triumph, and there’s no triumph here. There is only one, strangely magical interlude, when Larry and Fred get loose from the terror for a moment—but just for a moment.
Bigelow, like Frank Capra, casts by face. The movie is full of distinctive faces from which characters are built: Avengers star Anthony Mackie as a Vietnam vet, Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as the two young women, Ben O’Toole and Jack Reynor as police. Will Poulter, the living embodiment of the Randy puppet from Pee-wee’s Playhouse, is the unhinged cop who escalates the mayhem, and mournful John Boyega—a hero of the new Star Wars series—plays a security guard swept into the scene. His character is at the heart of what’s elusive and mysterious about this otherwise big-brushstroke movie: a good soul who tries to finesse the game in many sensible ways, but is as crushed by circumstances as everybody else.
Detroit begins with images from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series, paintings that make art out of tragedy. The very fact that this movie tries, dynamically, to do the same will itself outrage some viewers: Social-issue films are supposed to be square, dull, and single-note. Detroit is none of these. It’s a movie that will not make it easy for us. Detroit, Rated R. Opens Thurs., Aug. 3 at various theaters.