The intense but predictable DETROIT looks and sounds good but fails to deliver the Oscar hit we were hoping.
NOTE: Our images were captured from the DVD version.
By Matt Cummings
We’ve entered that time of the year when Oscar candidates – on both film and digital –
begin to strut their wings in hopes of luring some tasty Oscar considerations. DETROIT was supposed to be one of them, boasting a talented director (Kathryn Bigelow) and a solid team of A-list actors. Although it’s held up with critics, DETROIT was a commercial flop, originally designed to galvanize viewers to make connections between the turgid 1960’s and today’s political and racial disasters. Instead, the film is too long and fails to use its great cast to move beyond its predictable good victim/bad cops motif. The home release suffers as well, delivering good video and audio but lacking in its supplements.
The city of 1967 Detroit, Michigan is gripped in a wave of violent protest, fed destructive flames by decades of racial inequality and prejudice among the police department. All of this reaches a peak in the infamous Algiers Motel incident, in which three blacks were killed by the police after responding to reports of a sniper on the roof. The inhabitants of the hotel/brothel include two members of the singing group The Dramatics, Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), two white women Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), and others like Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.) and Carl (Jason Mitchell). When the latter’s stupid decision invites the police, state police, and even national guard, a whirlwind of beatings begin by a team of police led by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter). Acting like performers in a coup de thé·â·tre, Krauss and his men “interrogate” certain members by pretending to kill them, hoping the others out of fear will roll over on the others. But when the stoic black security officer Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) also gets involved, he is blamed for the deaths alongside the trio of cops. The results of the trial will only strengthen the larger story of race and inequality, while the motel’s occupants attempt to deal with witnessing such a horrific personal tragedy.
While I’m sensitive to the atrocities committed by the police and judicial system in DETROIT, I can’t help but admit that I don’t need its message to suddenly become aware of race relations in the United States. If Director Kathryn Bigelow’s intent was to educate us about Algier’s, she should have kept the story more tightly focused, producing a film from the perspective of the murder trial rather than the moment-to-moment account and then dragging us through an overly-long third act. Once there, the film loses all steam, meandering through the investigation that feels as long as the two years it took to bring the cops to trial. Once there, we get a bit of a spark from the cop’s lawyer (a quite good John Krasinski), but everything around it just slows to a crawl. Instead of Bigelow and long-time contributor Writer Mark Boal producing a compact (and more effective) 2-hour production, DETROIT clocks in at an overly-robust 143 minutes. Along the way, we don’t get a lot of insight into why the three cops did what they did; we learn very little about their upbringing, and how perhaps the police department might have played a role in growing these young cadets into racists. By the end, they feel demonized but no more understood than when we started.
There’s a danger in saying that DEROIT is merely anti-cop, because it’s not. Each side made critical mistakes leading up to Algiers, but our creative team tells only one side of the story. Cops at the beginning of the movie are just as racist and mean as they are at the end, and the judicial system too remains blind. Being forced down a road so helpless as to the outcome does return some great tension, particularly as some suspects are led into rooms to be “interrogated.” But even there, we get a lot of unnecessary moments, including a nude scene that never needed to happen: it does nothing to humanize either side and solves no mystery, other than to give the cops and one Army dude the chance to eventually cover her up. There’s a lot of this sort of meandering to DETROIT, which becomes more so as get to the anticlimactic third act.
Bigelow has assembled some great talent, including Boyega, Mackie, and Poulter, of which the latter is the only one who really gets a chance to show his chops. Mackie is literally facing a wall for most of the movie, and Boyega’s stoicism is ultimately the only thing we know about him. Bigelow admits in a card sequence near film’s end that most of DETROIT was created using testimonies and interviews, as the records of that evening still aren’t completely clear. Some of that mystery is played up to full effect, with Bigelow’s lenses trained close on faces; but it’s ultimately not enough once the shooting starts. Our actors get few chances to go beyond their victim/hunter personas, so DETROIT never gets close to 2015’s SELMA in terms of humanizing either side.
That leaves me to wonder about the whole point of DETROIT: is it meant to be a stinging commentary about something we already know exists in America, or an open-eyed rendering of the moments at The Algiers? Perhaps the creative team was envisioning something else – like partygoers can sometimes do really stupid and insensitive things at just the wrong time – but it matters little. DETROIT feels the weight of its runtime, not exactly knowing when to end, although its cast tries its best to get us there.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment presents DETROIT with a MPEG/AVC transfer and shot with the Arri Alexa Mini. Even though that camera usually produces very good digital prints, DETROIT has a ton of filmic grain, with grit and texture abounding. Some have complained that Bigelow and Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd used too much handheld here, but I also think it lends to the incredible tension of the interrogation sequence. At the same time, we do see quite a lot of softness that, combined with the grain, does lead to moments of downright fuzziness. DETROIT has a lot of clarity issues, but that doesn’t seem to be Fox’s fault. Sweat and details on clothing are fine but never stand out. Colors lean a bit to the darker side, with skin tones appearing to be life-like. It’s not a homerun by any account, but DETROIT’s transfer gets the job done.
DETROIT offers a good DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that brings home the various tensions surrounding the subject matter. For all the shouting, this is a fairly quiet film in many parts, coming out to play once music and crowd noise is needed. Then, we get a great sense of the turmoil that consumed the city over three days. Rioters smash and yell in the forwards, but we also get police sirens and other effects in the rears. Dialogue takes center stage by merely boosting that channel above other sounds, while the singing by The Dramatics and music by John Coltrane ring throughout the five speakers. Smashing and gunfire create a claustrophobic environment especially in that second act. Again, it’s not reference-quality, but Fox nevertheless turns in a solid audio transfer.
DETROIT contains only the bare essentials here, missing a much-needed director’s commentary and offering only mildly-interesting short-run BTS featurettes. All supplements are presented in HD, but it’s odd that each is so painfully short:
- The Truth of Detroit (2:08)
- The Cast of Detroit (2:11)
- The Invasion of Detroit (2:06)
- The Hope of Detroit (1:14)
- Detroit – Then and Now (1:33)
- Algee Smith and Larry Reed: Grow (3:35)
- Gallery (1:05)
- Trailers: HIDDEN FIGURES, STEP
Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo and a Digital HD copy code inside. The slipcase is rather basic, with embossed lettering. The same goes for the plain interior. At the time of this posting, we were not aware of any special editions.
THE BOTTOM LINE
What starts as a terrifying and engrossing feature, DETROIT ultimately struggles with an anticlimactic and overly-long third act. Performances are solid but unimpressive and Bigelow’s direction gets us right into the tensions that created such a harrowing ordeal. But to be frank, we don’t need a film like DETROIT to serve as a warning about current times, as the nightly news reminds us vividly. So, where should DETROIT stand? In my opinion, it’s a wasted opportunity, due mainly to its structure. Technical elements are fine, but the Supplements feel empty and with no director’s commentary we’ll never know Bigelow’s decision to extend the movie past 120 minutes. I’m not sure I can recommend DETROIT for purchase, but it is worth renting, if only to remind us that race relations lie at the heart of our political discord and threaten to remain so until everyone joins in cleaning it up.
DETROIT is rated R for strong violence and pervasive language and has a runtime of 143 minutes.