BURN, BABY, BURN: Detroit


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Warning: SPOILERS
Two movies have opened within two weeks of each other, both by recognized filmmakers and both based on actual events.
However, apart from the fact that their titles are single words of two syllables each beginning with the letter “D”, the two couldn’t be more different in approach, tone and style.
One is writer/director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and the second, more recently, is writer Mark Boal’s and director Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit.
And though Nolan’s movie is a masterful piece of filmmaking, impressive and even ultimately quite moving, it is ferociously put to shame by Boal and Bigelow’s Detroit.

 

Dunkirk is effectively stiff upper lip. It’s also safe and somewhat anemic with its most clever aspect an interesting use of a non-linear structure.

 

But Detroit is fierce and in your face. It’s confrontational, violent, daring and refuses to play nice.

 

While Dunkirk pats itself on the back, Detroit roars with anger and disgust and never, ever once lets us reassure ourselves.

 

The story begins in July of 1967 when the Detroit police raid an after-hours club that has no license to be open. Because a locked door wouldn’t let them lead the arrested out a back exit, they were forced to do it in public where everyone could see them. This caused the gathering of more and more citizens until someone threw a trashcan through a window and the riots began.

 

At first the film won’t let us focus on any one character or even characters or plotline. The story jumps and skips like lightning until one wonders if this is what the film is to be: a series of short snapshots of the riots with no character or event more important than any else.

 

But slowly the movie finds itself focusing on five main characters: an aspiring black singer and his best friend; a black Vietnam vet recently discharged from duty; a black security officer who tries to bestride both worlds by trying to defuse any situation he finds; and a white, racist, psychotic police officer.

 

All converge on July 25th at the Algiers motel, a happening place that seems cut off from the rioting going on around it.

 

But when someone staying at the motel annex shoots a toy pistol out a window to scare some officers and national guardsmen, it sets off chain of events leading to the local police, the National Guard and state police holding a group of guests captive as they try to find who shot off the gun.

 

The result was three deaths of cold blooded murder and the terrorizing of a group of innocent bystanders.

 

In forging their film, Boal and Bigelow eschew more traditional forms of filmmaking.

 

The camerawork, mixed with scenes of newsreels of the time, is jittery and antsy with the feel of someone making a documentary.

 

The dialog is simple and feels semi-improvised, with a certain flatness of real speak.

 

And the actors and their faces bear no resemblance to stars or known actors. They have the look and feel of ordinary and actual people, as if recruited from the street (even Anthony Mackie as the vet and John Krakowski as a defense attorney seem hardly recognizable).

 

It has the feel of a Robert Bresson film as if directed by D.W. Griffith or King Vidor.

 

Bigelow is certainly one of our finest filmmakers. She began small with a neo-vampire/western called Near Dark, an impressive near début film.

 

After that, her career went in an odd path. She made movies that were brilliantly, even ecstatically, directed, but were hampered by some of the most ludicrous screenplays a major director perhaps has been saddled with.

 

It was very difficult not to be fascinated by films such as Blue Steel, Strange Days and perhaps the campiest and kitchiest of all, Point Blank. But the screenplays were cringe worthy and even embarrassing.

 

She finally found a subject worthy of her, The Hurt Locker, a character study of a man, an adrenaline junky, who serves as a bomb disposal soldier in Iraq.

 

For me she faltered with her next film, Zero Dark Thirty, which had an uninteresting and flat central character played in a flat and uninteresting manner.

 

But back to form, Detroit is probably her best work to date.

 

Perhaps it was her good fortune to find a teammate in Boal who wrote The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and now Detroit. With the above films and the story for In the Valley of Elah, he is one of our most promising screenwriters.

 

With Will Poulter as the psychotic cop; John Boyega of Attack the Block as the security officer; and Algee Smith as the aspiring singer.

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