Director Kathryn Bigelow has shown us the gritty realness of war in the middle east with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. This time she brings the same vivid action to America with her newest feature Detroit. Taking place during the devastating 1967 Detroit riots, the movie is a dramatization of the tragic real events that took place during a police raid in the Algiers Motel. Bigelow plays out the film with such realism that it feels like it’s real footage- in fact some of it is. Detroit is a difficult movie to sit through but the poignancy and craftsmanship make it one of the year’s best.

The movie doesn’t just show, but takes the audience into the Detroit riots. The backdrop is established immediately; racial tensions are high, black civilians are viciously targeted, police are burdened and overworked, buildings are burning, looting is rampant — it’s not a good situation for anyone. The story spotlights the incidents that occurred in a motel where seven black men and two white women were tortured with extreme brutality, with three of the men shot down in cold blood. The movie simply recreates what occurred and lets the audience judge for themselves. Tensions are high from beginning to end and it’s an intriguing, gut wrenching experience.

Bigelow reteams with journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal for a third time. The duo has knocked it out of the park again creating another gripping and intense retelling of a real life American horror story. Boal’s story expertly juggles different characters and viewpoints- some real, some fabricated. The story is transparent about the accurateness of the events due for narrative sake and the fact that some of the details are shrouded in mystery. Bigelow proves she is a master of suspense and movie realism. She has an acute eye for action but never allows it to overshadow the characters or story. She does a brilliant job and deserves some notice come awards season.

Detroit at times plays very much like a horror movie. The violence is not restrained as we countdown the pending doom with each passing minute. There are some frightening authentic sequences on display thanks to the strong performances and  unflinching camera movement. But of course, the poignancy of current events paralleling the 1967 incidents are the most haunting. It looks real and is as immersive as it is effective.

The ensemble cast of young actors really put in their best efforts to make the incident as real as possible. They are all fantastic. While John Boyega gives a grounded and more subdue performance playing a real-life security guard, Will Poulter and Algee Smith give the most riveting performances. Smith is the heart and broken soul of the movie as a young aspiring singer who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Poulter character is an authoritarian trigger-happy cop that is as eager to use his gun as he is unforgiving. His character is made up from the same cloth as Schindler’s List’s Amon Goeth and 12 Year’s a Slave’s Edwin Epps. He is a ruthless and hateful character that at times seems unbelievable but disturbingly accurate. A deeper dive into his violent psyche may have helped with his motives but we are given a general sense of why he does what he does.

Detroit is a somber yet powerful film. It’s an enraging and embarrassing reflection of America’s history. It’s one of the most important and distressing movies to hit the big screen. While it will certainly be controversial and even polarizing, the skill and presentation is remarkable. Bigelow has expertly directed an impressive movie that will stay with you long after the credits roll. It’s a harsh reminder but an important one.

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