The Detroit Sinners.

Katheryn Bigelow’s new film should make you angry. It made me angry. As this year’s Selma (on steroids) the film is an ode to how incidents can get out of hand: at a macro level we see how a stubbornly chained-up door triggers a series of riots 50 years ago that reduced the ‘Motor Town’ to a war zone; at a micro level we see how a childish prank turns into a terrifying ordeal for the guests of the Algiers Motel.

While I was aware of the historical context of the Detroit riots, the Motel incident was new to me. How accurate is the film? Not very, from the many comments made online and from diversions in the story to what’s reported on the ‘official’ wiki page. But what’s clear is that the facts of what occurred have been refracted through the multiple lenses of the police, the victims, the state police, the troopers and the legal teams arguing those facts. So no one can be sure anymore. 

Things getting out of hand. Detroit lights the blue touch paper.

Bigelow – particularly as a white women – is brave to make this film. You would like to think that, after 50 years, American society has ‘grown up’ somewhat but, after the recent police-on-black incidents in places including Ferguson, Baltimore and Charlotte, that is clearly not the case. So this is a rather incendiary picture:  as a white liberal, I was angry; as a black person I would be furious. This hardly pours ‘oil on troubled waters’. 

Under pressure from ‘the force’: John Boyega.

But enough of the political context: what’s the film like? The answer is tense: very tense!

The riots are wonderfully staged with masterful cinematography (by Barry Ackroyd, “The Hurt Locker”, “Captain Phillips“) that blends filmed footage with documentary footage (cleverly upscaled for the big screen) such that you often can’t see the seams. Once in the annex of the motel the film becomes grippingly claustrophobic as the racist cop Krauss (Will Poulter) becomes the king – no, the dictator – of all he surveys. Here the film editing and sound design is superb, and it would be astonishing if these disciplines are not up for Oscars for this work. 

Did he just slip in the shower? Nope… Acting talent in the form of Krauss (Will Poulter) and Larry (Algee Smith).

It is difficult to single out specific acting performances, since this is a fine ensemble performance (a One Mann’s Movies award prediction:  the The Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture). But I will reference a few: unknown Algee Smith owns the role of Larry Reed – lead singer of Motown group ‘The Dramatics’ – showing how the events of the night sapped his enthusiasm for life; Jack Reynor extends his impressive CV (after “Sing Street” and “Free Fire“) as the most hapless of Krauss’s cronies; and John Boyega (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens“) delivers a Poitier-level of screen presence as fish-out-of-water security guard Dismukes. A mid-film twist in the film concerning his character (at least as written and portrayed) delivers a powerful kick to the gut that Boyega acts beautifully.

But the starring role goes to Poulter as the malignant police officer Krauss. With a resume as diverse as “Son of Rambo”, “We’re the Millers” and “The Revenant“, Poulter is making it into the top tier of young movie actors. As Krauss he is 100% believable.

Thuggish hencehmen – Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor).

I loved the first two thirds of the film: gripping, thought-provoking and scary, but with entertaining elements of the Motown scene, through the eyes of ‘The Dramatics”, thrown in to add humanity and context. If it had finished then, I would have been happy:  FFFFF, no problem. Unfortunately Bigelow and her standard screenwriter Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) rather over-egg the pudding in the final reels, making the film over-long and undoing some of the previous good work. The film sprawls into multiple different areas including courtroom scenes, mourning  families (introducing brand new characters), a Larry Reed story and related Dramatics fall-out, with only the latter storyline being really welcome.

The Dramatics in action.

This is an important film, and will no doubt feature strongly in the Awards season.  It is also, notwithstanding its flaws, a very good film that was a hard watch but impressive. Recommended.

Fad Rating:  FFFF.