(out of 5)
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal take their docudrama style to a homegrown situation as violent and intense as anything they explored in either the Iraq War or the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The increasing size of Detroit’s population, thanks to the draw of the auto industry promising employment to people from other parts of the country, combined with the city’s racist residential laws has created a tension that bursts into riots in 1967, turning the Victoria Park neighbourhood into a war zone after the raid of an after-hours bar frequented by a number of African American soldiers who have just returned home from the Vietnam War. Days of looting and curfews follow, and among the many tragedies seen by this awful period in Motor City’s history is the one given center stage in the film, what has come to be known as the Algiers Motel Incident: a party in one of the motel’s rooms is innocent fun and games until one of them makes the tragic decision to fire a starter pistol out the window. The blank shots that are fired are interpreted as real gunfire by the officers down the street, who burst into the motel and hold the youngsters hostage in an attempt to find out who the dangerous sniper is. Led by a police officer already facing a murder charge for excessive violence (Will Poulter), the interrogation escalates quickly into torture and death as the cops only increase their aggression the more they realize they have made an error in judgment. The movie then closes with a chapter looking at the criminal trial of the police officers and the effect that the eventual verdict had on the city’s race relations. Bigelow and Boal follow the formula of their previous two films but, for some reason, the third time is not the charm for them as, this time, the whole thing actually feels like a formula. The violence is believable and, as usual, both director and writer concentrate on presenting dramatic situations without manipulative moralizing, but there’s a lack of personality to the whole thing that is likely the result of having too many characters we don’t get to know too well, and poor casting in those we do. John Boyega gives a credible performance as the security guard from a nearby grocery store who puts himself in grave danger to help the kids in the Algiers, but he’s not a particularly charismatic actor and resonates very little in the mostly wordless part. Much more egregious is the miscasting of Poulter as the cowardly officer who covers his crimes with bigger ones; Poulter is working overtime on the American accent and sounds like someone in an old Warner Bros. gangster film, hunching up his shoulders and swaggering his walk to dictate the kind of personality that another actor would have a more natural time with. Algee Smith is much more successful as Larry Reed, the member of the singing group The Dramatics whose experience at the Algiers has a permanent effect on his life, while Anthony Mackie is exceptional as a Vietnam Vet who has come to the city in search of work.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal
Cinematography by Barry Ackroyd
Music by James Newton Howard
Production Design by Jeremy Hindle
Costume Design by Francine Jamison-Tanchuck