Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Film Review: With Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow stages a terrific middle act lost between two lesser ones

How much of a film needs to be great in order to make up for the parts that aren't so great? I ask this because Kathryn Bigelow's 145 minute long Detroit is made up of a 45 minute masterpiece of a middle act with two other 45 minute notably weaker acts either side of it. It puts you in an awkward place when you're trying to consolidate your thoughts on the film, especially when what you've just watched is weaker for longer than it is stronger: you have to decide whether the smaller but better moments are good enough to outweigh the longer but lesser ones.

Detroit centres on the Algiers Motel during a street riot in the titular city, but Bigelow begins her film a few days before the event and refuses to depict the focal set piece until almost an hour into the film. It's a bold decision, but one that doesn't entirely pay off due to how scattershot this opening act is. We're introduced to a handful of people that will soon become important - private security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), Motown band member Larry Reed (Algee Smith), Police officer Phillip Kraus (Will Poulter) - but the film's bouncing back and forth between them never comes together. 

It doesn't help that Detroit, in its first act mostly, seems entirely unable to decide what film it wants to be. We cut from violent street riots to lively upbeat musical performances, and the jarring tones land awkwardly. The time isn't used well enough to properly establish the characters beyond the bare minimum either: we know Larry wants to be a singer, and the guy's got a killer voice, but beyond that he's little more than a charming guy in a band. It's enough for us to like him, but not enough to sell him as anything more than a bit-character.

Perhaps Bigelow's logic here is that we don't need to be invested in these characters for the film's middle act to affect us, and that's a tough argument to criticise. Once Detroit reaches its middle act - in which Larry and his friend Ted end up in a Motel raided by the Police who mistakenly think a sniper is occupying the building - it hits tremendous heights. Bigelow knows her way around a tense scenario, and her direction here is astonishing - she keeps the action on the ground floor, vary rarely showing any sense of momentum or development. We don't feel as if the situation is ever progressing, let alone improving, and so you wind up permanently stuck in the middle of a seemingly endless nightmare.

Behind the camera is cinematographer Barry Akroyd, who takes on the whole shaky-cam trope with such conviction that any tripod-based shot in the final act comes as a shock. He shoots this middle act with his camera all over the place, picking up on the intensity and distress of the moment, and somehow the effects never cross over into disorientation. Despite every shot giving the shaky-cam of Cloverfield a run for its money, there's a real clarity to Detroit's cinematography - something about it just looks and feels very different.

Once Detroit leaves its big set piece behind, it marches straight into the aftermath and the court case surrounding the night in question. Again, it's a bold, admirable move on the film's behalf, but it's the execution that lets everything down. The final act is simply far too long, simmering what should be a gutpunch of a conclusion down into something more subdued. Don't get me wrong, the anger is there - Detroit is a fundamentally angry film, even if its slower pace might try to disguise the fact - but you start to feel your patience being tested by the time the verdict is given.

Detroit is perhaps both strengthened and damaged by its connections to the present day. While it allows the issues on hand here to hit even harder than they might, it still robs the film of an ending - Bigelow embraces the fact that Detroit doesn't really have a conclusion, but there's something still off key about the way the film wraps up. Its concluding title cards fail to evoke emotion, perhaps this is where the line draws as to how far these characters can stretch without any real depth. All of these characters are performed well - Boyega is underused but on good form, and I'll be surprised if Poulter doesn't nab his first Oscar nomination for his brutal role here - but they don't have enough to them to last into the end credits.

Yet, do they need to? Detroit's characters are less characters in their own right, rather metaphors for real world people on the whole. When you read Bigelow's film this way, her decision to sideline character based emotion feels wise, but with such an overlong final act still to come after the film exhausts you with its focal set piece, you start to feel the characters slip away from you. I realise now that I haven't answered the question I posed at the beginning of this review, but perhaps it's a question that can't be answered generally and only works specifically to each film it relates to. In which case, does Detroit's middle act work hard enough to forgive the messier two? Do you know what, I think it just about does.

In A Sentence

Its bloated opening and closing acts do it few favours, but Detroit finds the weight it needs in a blistering, unshakeable elongated set piece and a career-making performance from Will Poulter.

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