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Image: Annapurna Pictures

Director Kathryn Bigelow long ago abandoned the biker vampires and surfer cops that propelled her early work. She makes big, important movies now that start big, important conversations. The loudest so far was about Zero Dark Thirty and its alleged suggestion that “enhanced interrogation” provided key information in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. I don’t have any skin in that game—the argument always struck me as extra-textual and beside the point—but one would be excused for reading her newest effort as a rebuke to that debate. Detroit dives headfirst into state-sanctioned abuse, physical suffering, and psychological gamesmanship.

Imbued with the same electric finesse and moral impartiality and that rocketed Bigelow from action-genre favorite to award darling, Detroit fires at an accelerated clip and without pause for its first 45 minutes. After an animated, Jacob Lawrence-influenced preface that distills the history of systemic racism into a handful of subtitles (“equality was an illusion, change was inevitable…”), the movie opens at the uprising’s inciting event: a police raid at an unlicensed club. From there, the bedlam that follows materializes as an extended montage that looks like veracity-skewering New Hollywood provocations and cuts like Oliver Stone’s archival symphonies.

Bigelow is most at home here; as tanks roll through the city’s bombed-out, urban hell-scape, twitchy soldiers peg pin-drop movement—an apartment dweller peeking through her bedroom window—as potentially lethal and open fire. “It looks like ‘Nam,” a patrolman observes. “Can you believe this is the USA?”

The question is rhetorical, but Bigelow’s point isn’t. That this happened on US soil is, indeed, still bewildering; that it looks a lot like Baghdad or Fallujah is depressing; and that nothing has changed in the 50 years since the riots in Detroit is unforgivable. Driving through the chaos, that same patrolman, a white guy barely on this side of 20, launches into extended, vital indictment of systemic rot. “We need to stop failing these people,” he says to his partner. “They’re looking to us and we keep letting them down left, right, and center.” But the words barely register when a looter bounds past their squad car; the officer leaps out of the vehicle and fires a shotgun blast into the unarmed man’s back.

And so it goes. Detroit is split into three parts, and Bigelow keeps the opening segment moving at a fever pace. Shot so that it seems the camera can barely keep up with the unraveling anarchy, the recreations are intercut with news reports, archival clips, and police-scanner commentary. It’s a technique straight out of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, itself filmed alongside the police riot outside the 1968 democratic convention in Chicago. That movie was expressly about the intersection of narrative and documentary storytelling and the problems inherent to demonstration in every sense of the word. (Its most famous scene records the exact moment the barrier between fact and fiction shatters when, in the midst of the mayhem, the soundtrack picks up a crewmember shouting, “Look out, Haskell! This is for real!”) Bigelow is a Columbia-educated semiotician, and she’s no doubt aware of the material’s deconstructionist potential. But Detroit, with its handheld, faux-documentary aesthetic, fiercely restricts itself to arms-length observation.

That’s partially why the movie’s middle segment emerges as a structural shock. After a handful of seemingly irrelevant detours, the characters—that patrolman, a black security guard, a federal trooper, a hard-luck Motown quintet, two white teenyboppers from Ohio—converge around a neon-lit motel. The National Guard is stationed down the block; TVs report on the rioting across town. Some kid goofs with a starter pistol. The toy gun goes off; someone yells, “Sniper!” A heavy “thunk” and a series of crime-scene photographs: something awful happened here.

The Algiers Motel Incident, as it came to be known, forms Detroit’s narrative centerpiece; like the vertiginous third act of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s a mercilessly extended sequence that tests the limits of audience identification and raises fundamental questions about participation and the act of watching.

Part of its effectiveness lies in its technical mastery. Throughout the movie’s keenly unfocused first third, Bigelow furtively communicates a glut of characterization and geographic information that only reveals its relevance once things go haywire. The hallway in which so much of Detroit occurs remains spatially coherent so that its opportunities and dead ends are clear. When a few victims attempt a desperate escape, they hurdle through dark basements with the same rabid instinct that propels victims in horror movies.

That comparison, though, reveals a fundamental flaw. How viewers interact with a movie doesn’t radically change when equipped with an awareness of the subject’s political immediacy or nonfiction pedigree. On a visceral level, we respond to a perfectly crafted scare no matter the monster’s form. (If anything, the situational verisimilitude only enhances its threat.) Detroit has no interest in analyzing the behavior that fueled that night or the motivating prejudices that precipitated it. Its primary concern is the event’s logistics, which play out in stunningly immersive and urgent detail. That leaves Detroit frustratingly close to what might’ve been called “torture porn” a few years ago, but with a pedigree that almost excuses the grime. It’s a revolting experience, but there’s the sense that, beneath its implacable craftsmanship, the movie never fully engages with the weight of its impossible subject.

Isn’t that the same debate Zero Dark Thirty provoked? At this point, I’d rather talk about those biker vampires and surfer cops.

Detroit. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter, and Algee Smith. Opens in Kansas City August 4, 2017.

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