There is something hollow in the progression of the story told by Detroit that seems to be an entirely separate thought than the mere fact that the incident that is dramatized in its centerpiece sequence was a pointless game. We certainly grasp that notion by merely watching the events play out, although it doesn't seem as if screenwriter Mark Boal intended for us to feel that way about what sets his audience up for that centerpiece and, later, what transpires afterward. It's a frustrating emotion with which to contend, the knowledge throughout that the story being told is crucial and more relevant than ever being interrupted by a warring feeling that something is missing.
What's missing is perhaps the "why." That isn't to say that the incident at hand needed to be justified by Boal's screenplay but that, for all the historical context provided in the build-up to that incident (as it came to be known, the term radically understating its severity), genuine insight seems to be missing. Perhaps that can be attributed to the approach, which layers the stories of about a dozen individuals into an ensemble that comes to a head by the time the incident begins. It's patchwork by design, in other words, and that means human insight is both limited and limiting.
It's also procedural in nature, meaning that the human figures whom we follow before, during, and after the incident are merely avatars representing their real-life counterparts. There are Larry (Algee Smith), the closest thing to a "main character" in Boal's tapestry and the lead singer of a doo-wop group, and Melvin (John Boyega), a security guard for an automotive factory who aligns himself with the National Guard to make clear his allegiances. There are Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white tourists from Ohio, and Krauss (Will Poulter, exceptional as unfiltered menace), Demens (Jack Reynor), and Flynn (Ben O'Toole), three white cops with some curious opinions regarding the contemporary treatment of the black communities.
The setting is, of course, Detroit, and it's 1967, a generally tumultuous for anyone with skin color that isn't white, particularly those in the black communities of the city's urban regions. Rich whites have seen the wealth ratio shift in their favor, meaning that they dominate the suburbs. All the angst of the region and era is leading up to what would be known as the Algiers Motel Incident, in which the three white cops, the two white women, and several black men would be stuck in a perverse game with and between each other, in which the black men were used as both pawns and playing pieces, tortured and a couple of them murdered for the pleasure of it by the officers. The security guard, meanwhile, becomes an unwitting witness to all of this.
The undeniable feeling of fetishism seeps into Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow's staging of the incident itself, in which there is no ambition beyond simply showing it. In other words, the filmmakers rely on the awfulness of the situation without presenting a reason for dramatizing it so literally. The build-up is strong, and what follows the incident is an urgent courtroom drama that litigates the incident in a way that feels more comprehensive than what came before. Detroit, though, proves that, while there might be a definitive telling of a horrifying paragraph in a chapter of history, this film is not quite it.
Algee Smith (Larry), John Boyega (Melvin), Will Poulter (Krauss), Jacob Latimore (Fred), Jason Mitchell (Carl), Hannah Murray (Julie), Jack Reynor (Demens), Kaitlyn Dever (Karen), Ben O'Toole (Flynn), Anthony Mackie (Greene), John Krasinski (Auerbach), Nathan Davis Jr. (Aubrey), Peyton "Alex" Smith (Lee), Malcolm David Kelley (Michael), Joseph David-Jones (Morris), Laz Alonso (Conyers), Ephraim Sykes (Jimmy), Leon Thomas III (Darryl), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Aubrey), Chris Chalk (Frank).
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal.
Rated R (violence, pervasive language).
Released in select cities on July 28, 2017.