What's most troubling about Kathryn Bigelow's recent collaborations with journalist-cum-screenwriter Mark Boal is that, despite claims to journalistic verisimilitude, their films express a foul tendency toward the exploitative.
The problem boils over in Detroit, the latest serious movie from the Bigelow/Boal stable. It is a historical period piece about the Algiers Motel episode of the 1967 Detroit riots, in which seven black males and two white women were psychologically tortured, humiliated and abused by local police officers, resulting in the deaths of three black males. (The police laid siege to the hotel looking for a sniper, attracted by the cracks and pops of a miniature starter pistol.) Like their previous collaborations, 2008's The Hurt Locker and 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, Detroit strives for a tense, claustrophobic, utterly agonizing absorption in the action, with Bigelow's frantically moving camera designed to deploy the view directly into horror.
And that's how Detroit unfolds: like a horror film. The film flattens its historical personages and its particularities of time-and-place into excruciating exploitation – somewhere between a Straw Dogs-style "survive the night" home invasion narrative, Milgram experiment moral problem play and racial torture porn. (The motel itself has all the creaky floorboards and consuming Gothic shadows of a haunted house.) Among the victims are Algee Smith as young R&B hopeful Larry Reed, Jacob Latimore as his best friend and "bodyguard," Anthony Mackie as a discharged Vietnam veteran and John Boyega (pulling a clipped, partway-convincing American accent) as Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard utilized by the racist police as a liaison to the other accused, and innocent, men.
The extended sequences of white police officers, under the bullying command of an openly racist loose cannon (Will Poulter), threatening, pistol-whipping and slaughtering black men, while intermittently sexually assaulting young women are, of course, meant to be disturbing. This has become Bigelow and Boal's stock-in-trade as purveyors of immersive cinematic affect. Yet as in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, there's an underlying uneasiness to the cruelty.
While the general line on Bigelow's recent career sees her elevated from the less-reputable slums of mid-tier genre cinema, her collaborations with Boal stand less as upgrades of the genre movie mode than inversions of its basic formula. Instead of crafting fleet entertainment that hints at a certain gravity of theme (the fragility of male identity in Near Dark and Point Break, the hardiness of female identity in Blue Steel), Bigelow makes conspicuously earnest movies that rely increasingly on cheap thrills.
And she does so without bothering to flesh out her characters and scenarios. Jeremy Renner's one-dimensional adrenalin-junkie bomb-disposal whiz in The Hurt Locker would feel right at home skydiving in formation with the extreme sports jocks of Point Break. Jessica Chastain's zero-dimensional intelligence analyst in Zero Dark Thirty feels less like a character (let alone a human) than a narrative cipher in place to advance the plot along with the film's propagandistic and utterly odious pro-torture agenda. And why is it that Angela Bassett's brash, butt-kicking moral centre in 1995's Strange Days still feels more fully fleshed-out than any of the ostensibly real-life characters in Detroit?
This thinly sketched sleaziness may well have been mitigated by the film's politics. But confirming the worst suspicions of any Bigelow/Boal skeptic, they offer messaging that is at best muddled, if not out-and-out bad. The film stops short of any full-throated critique of the police force, making a point of showing good, honest Mayberry-esque cops among the vile outlaw officers. Detroit soft-peddles a bad-apple model of police brutality, instead of taking the institution of policing itself to task. This, despite the fact that Poulter's officer is sent back on the beat by a superior after already being suspected of shooting an unarmed black looter in the back earlier in the film.
As Detroit leaves the oppressive confines of the Algiers Motel and slumps into its third act – a show trial of the offending officers that feels rote and predetermined even if you don't already know how it ends – it can perhaps be congratulated for sidelining liberal platitudes and feel-good schmaltz. But it does so at the expense of indulging a deeper cynicism, presenting the racial conflict in the United States as "inevitable" (as it's called in a scene-setting title card) and, perhaps, eternal ("a pain that never goes away," as a grieving mother remarks of her son's death). After splitting with his doo-wop buddies, Smith's Larry finds work leading a small black evangelical choir. While it's construed as uplifting, it betrays a darker defeatism: the belief that only in church groups and other racial enclaves can black Americans be expected to feel free enough to express themselves. It's a troubling idea that Bigelow and Boal treat uncritically.
Such a clean-cut, cleaving of black and white feels not only fatalistic, but dangerously irresponsible – especially as, it hardly needs saying, Detroit feels explicitly pitched on a comment on contemporary racial tensions. Ultimately, Bigelow and Boal seem more concerned with the intimacy and unblinking realism of the horrifyingly extended sequences of black bodies in distress. Theirs is a newer, nastier strain of aspiringly highbrow exploitation cinema that wrings out the zeitgeist and saps contemporary political tensions for vulgar entertainment, casting the necessary complexities of that moment and those tensions to the side.
Like their lead in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal prove skillful and consummately professional in tinkering with such weapon's grade material. As with Renner's dirty bomb defuser, one gets the uncomfortable sense that the pair find excitement, even a perverse kind of pleasure, in handling it.