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Movie Review: 'Detroit' Offers a Pointless Take on a Big Topic


Published August 9, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 26, 2017 at 11:36 p.m.

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have become perhaps the most maddeningly frustrating and confounding filmmaking team working today. The director and screenwriter share a keen instinct for finding exactly the right story at exactly the right time. And then, just as dependably, they find a way to shoot themselves in the foot while telling it.

This wasn't always the case. With 2008's The Hurt Locker, they kept it together, stuck to the facts and created a powerful virtual-reality ride that mainlined the addictive rush of war into the viewer's cerebral cortex. It couldn't have been more deserving of its Best Picture Oscar. The team went behind the lines again with 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, but this time they botched the mission.

What could possibly compete at that moment with a white-knuckle, fact-based account of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound? The concept was inspired. The filmmakers even made history by recruiting sources within the CIA as, essentially, uncredited cowriters. They had knowledge of the operation no one outside the highest levels of government possessed. All they had to do was turn fact into film.

But, for reasons that remain unclear, the pair tinkered with the truth. They took politically charged liberties, suggesting torture resulted in the intelligence that led to the discovery of bin Laden's location. The fudging did zero to make Zero Dark Thirty a better film. Its sole effect was to raise questions about the filmmakers' credibility. And it cost them a potential Humvee full of Oscars.

Half a decade later, Bigelow and Boal are back. That's the good news. The bad news is, lessons do not appear to have been learned. Detroit is, in fact, the duo's most maddeningly frustrating and confounding movie to date.

Fifty years ago, a police raid on a black club sparked five days of rioting and looting, resulting in more than 7,000 arrests and 43 deaths. The film's opening takes a wide-angle view of the chaos, but Bigelow and Boal quickly narrow their focus to a particularly horrific incident that occurred at the Algiers Motel. At that instant, Detroit ceases to be a historical drama and becomes the most exploitative type of horror film.

Most of its running time is devoted to a grueling depiction of the "death game" three officers played with a group of young people they rounded up after storming the complex in search of a sniper. Will Poulter plays a racist psycho straight out of central casting. A composite cop named Krauss, he presides over an exercise in physical and psychological torture that causes the deaths of three black men.

It's a harrowing portrait of police abuse, but I'm not sure what its point is. Boal apparently isn't, either. I've read "Why I Wrote Detroit," a rambling July 21 piece he did for Vulture, and remain mystified.

And concerned. Nobody from this planet is going to leave a screening having learned a thing. I hope Bigelow and co. didn't blow $30 million on the big-screen bulletin that Racism Is Bad. My worry is that, at a time when tensions between the black community and police have been strained nearly to the breaking point, Detroit appears designed to accomplish little besides fanning the flames.

On the bright side, it's a bomb. "We wish more people would have showed," the distributor's spokesman announced Sunday. "We're proud of the film, and we stand behind [its] message." Perhaps he can enlighten me, a good chunk of the country's critics and Mark Boal himself as to what exactly the point was of Detroit.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Detroit"