The lethal confrontation at the center of Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow's arresting new drama that opens Friday in wide release, takes place at the Algiers Motel at the height of the Detroit riots in 1967. Three black men died that night, though the historical record remains fuzzy on how the violence escalated. The movie attempts to answer that question in a brutal and unyielding account. It's a high-voltage depiction that shows more than it tells.
The movie begins a few days before the Algiers violence, with a mass arrest at an after-hours club. It then creates a dizzying, war-zone atmosphere — handheld camera work spliced with actual news footage; scenes of looting and brawling; the cityscape aflame — before arriving at its primary venue.
With a curfew in effect, gun shots are heard near the Algiers. Led and emboldened by a trigger-happy racist rookie cop named Krauss (The Maze Runner's Will Poulter), the Detroit police descend upon the location to root out who was responsible. The state police, the National Guard and a private security officer (John Boyega) witness the local police tactics with increasing anxiety and alarm.
Made to stand against a wall, the motel's guests — a Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie); a Motown hopeful and his best friend (Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore); two young white women from Ohio (Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever); and three other young black guests (Nathan Davis Jr., Peyton Smith, Malcolm David Kelley) — are tormented by officers in a sick psychological interrogation game they play to determine who the shooter was. The guests plead with the police that there was no shooter, there was no gun, but the cops don't buy it. The situation spins out of control.
As a scene, the Algiers sequence is drawn out and at times difficult to watch. Stylistically, it's of a piece with Bigelow's gripping scenes of close-quarters violence in both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, movies about contemporary wars abroad. In Detroit, the war is at home. The officers' behavior tracks with other accounts of racist cops in the Civil Rights era and beyond — despicable language, over-the-top physical violence, and (in both cases) unsanctioned tactics. Some efforts are made to show that decent officers exist — an internal review process; a good Samaritan — but the impression is one of a force beyond retribution, of officers wreaking havoc on black teenagers for the rush of power, for the thrill of revenge, for the fun.
The young actors make for a powerful ensemble — Boyega, Poulter, a restrained Mackie and the young motel guests. The script, written by Bigelow collaborator Mark Boal, focuses less on character development and more on atmosphere. It is, from beginning to end, an overwhelming immersion and a stunning, pulsing exemplar of modern American cinema. This is how we should, and must, see Detroit.