Detroit: Is Kathryn Bigelow a master of 'timebomb cinema'?

Director's harrowing docudrama is terrifyingly relevant

Kathryn Bigelow

Detroit, an explosive drama based on the 1967 race riots in the US, has been called powerful, unmissable and "the film we need right now" – but not everyone is convinced.

Kathryn Bigelow, the Academy Award winning director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, tackles a shocking episode of civil unrest that rocked Detroit in the summer of 1967.

Set during the 12th Street uprising, the film takes a wide-angle view of the explosive violence, arson and looting that followed a police raid on an African-American speakeasy, before zooming in on the events that unfolded when police were sent to the Algiers Motel in search of an alleged sniper. When the task force fail to find their suspect, they subject the mostly black guests to a horrifying ordeal of racial violence.

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Detroit stars John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) and Will Poulter (The Maze Runner).

Simon Crook in Empire praises Bigelow as "a master of timebomb cinema" and its "tick-tocking rhythms", and says Detroit "detonates from the opening reel". It's a "gruelling, nightmarish, ferociously vivid riot epic", adds the critic, who dubs the film "unflinching, unmissable and terrifyingly pertinent."

Owen Gleiberman in Variety says that Bigelow's film dramatises "an incident of police terrorism at the heart of the 1967 Detroit riot" to create a drama that is "as powerful as it is timely". By digging into the toxic heart of the story, the critic adds, she is able to provide moviegoers, both black and white, with a dramatic experience that is "nothing short of a catharsis", and hopefully, "healing".

Stephanie Zacherek in Time is less impressed. The critic suggests "effective filmmaking isn't always the same as good filmmaking, and that subjecting an audience to this "unrelenting grimness" isn't the best way to convey the weight of injustice. She also criticises the lack of subtlety and "moustache-twirling cartoonishness" of the police characters.

"Detroit is the type of movie we need right now," says Zacherek. But she admits "there's no shame in wishing that it were a better one".

Christopher Orr in the Atlantic is also disappointed. Detroit is a "powerful, harrowing film", he says, adding "insofar as it seeks to place viewers in the shoes of its helpless, terrified victims of police brutality, it succeeds to an almost unbearable degree".

But Orr criticises the "narrow ambition" of a gifted filmmaker whose previous, more nuanced, films such as The Hurt Locker "conveyed not merely the conflict between characters but also that within them".

Detroit, by contrast, says Orr, is "purely a story of villains and victims, a horror movie made all the more horrible by the fact that it is true".

Detroit opens in UK cinemas on 25 August.

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