Here we have director Kathryn Bigelow with another intense exercise in film-making- Detroit is a searing drama shot in docudrama style, all shaky-cam, unsteady focus, crash-zooms and the like designed to induce an almost tangible, you-are-there feel. People’s mileage for this kind of film-making varies, as it can get irritating and feel overly forced/manipulative (I’m using the ‘m-word’ again, as if films were ever anything other than manipulative). There is the unfortunate side-effect that this deliberately disorientating approach can actually turn people off as it can become tiresome, particularly in a film such as Detroit that runs close to two and a half hours long. The narrative can also inevitably suffer, too, as the handheld approach threatens to infer more chaos than control unless the editor can carefully reign things in. I’m sure it must be tricky making films such as this make much sense in the editing suite.
For myself, I did enjoy the film very much -if enjoy is quite the right word regards a film which concerns itself with racism and injustice, particularly as it based upon true events and sadly remains as topical now as ever. Usually all that forced shaky-cam/unsteady focus stuff wears me down but I must say the film kept me engrossed enough that I didn’t really feel particularly negative about it. Whether it actually made the film better is up for some debate though. The film has a powerful enough story and great cast/performances that a more traditionally-staged film would have been, I suspect, just as successful. Moreover, the structure of the films narrative might itself have been better served had it been bookended by the courtroom drama that concludes the piece. A grounded introduction through introductory courtroom proceedings might have helped viewers better understand what was going on and what the true focus of the film is (the riots themselves are largely just in the background), and some ensuing mystery from multiple viewpoints of the events might have given the film more drama as witnesses described what they heard and saw.
That said, this is a modern film and this seems to be how so many modern films are made now- fast, overly-processed with the shaky-cam and various focus tricks, its an intense approach and quite successful but dangerously close to the style overloading the substance. Detroit treads that line fairly well and doesn’t cross it too often, but I’d have liked the opportunity to see a calmer, more traditional film of this subject. Nonetheless, one can’t deny that this is quite powerful film-making and is a riveting albeit uncomfortable few hours viewing.