Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit: A Case Study in Evil
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“God!” the hunter exclaims to his cohort, his face soaked with sweat as he looks down at his fallen prey. “What a specimen he was!” Had this flippant remark been made by a poacher on safari, we would likely not think too much of it. The speaker in this case is no big game hunter, though, but a police officer proudly sporting the uniform and badge denoting his profession. The officer’s “kill” is not an animal, but a human being, an unarmed black man shot in the back despite posing no threat to anyone.
This is the world of Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017), a film which transports us to the nerve-wracking, racially-charged atmosphere of that city in 1967. It was a time when tensions between the city’s Black residents and its White police force were running at an all-time high, resulting in violent clashes between disenfranchised African-Americans and Detroit Police Department (DPD) officers whose bigotry was very thinly disguised.
Krauss (Will Poulter) and Greene (Anthony Mackie) in Detroit
Bigelow, who has proven herself a master of cinematic realism with The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), clearly appreciates the famous “show, don’t tell” rule. Given the high historical stakes, and their clear implications for the dysfunction of contemporary America, it would have been easy for the film to be expanded by another hour, at the very least. Aside from a brief, animated introduction establishing historic context, however, Bigelow does not allow her movie to become bogged down in exposition. Instead, the suffocating, chaotic atmosphere is established through haunting imagery, like the elegantly simple shot of police officers silhouetted against a backdrop of smoke and flame.
And yet, Detroit is rife with painfully drawn-out sequences of jaw-dropping terror and violence. The dramatic core of the film is an incident which took place at Detroit’s Algiers Motel one night in late July 1967. The film’s trailer bills the incident as one of the most terrifying in American history; after viewing the film’s reenactment, it isn’t hard to see why.
The episode, in which three young black men were murdered, while several other hostages, including two young white women, were verbally and physically tortured by DPD officers, is an exercise in police brutality that transcends even our darkest imaginings. The heart of Detroit lies in this sequence, which makes up a good portion of its run time.
Bigelow’s presentation of the surreal sequence of events is clinical and unflinching. Most viewers will be as unprepared for the nightmare as its victims, creating a nail-biting anxiety and claustrophobia that would send Alfred Hitchcock back to the drawing board. Bigelow’s interpretation of what took place in the Algiers Motel that night is as cold, insidious, and traumatic as any horror movie, but the violence never becomes numbing. Bigelow captures the tragic absurdity of the incident, which began when a young African-American man, Carl Cooper, fired a toy pistol out of his hotel room window as a prank, sending the police into a frenzy. It was a very stupid move, to be sure, but it paled in comparison to the Pandora’s Box it opened.
As chilling as Detroit’s violence is, its effect would have been weaker without a compelling villain. In this respect, Bigelow has gone above and beyond the call of duty, creating a flesh-and-blood monster who undoubtedly deserves a spot on any Greatest Movie Villain list. That distinction goes to Phillip Krauss, a young DPD officer whose childish, innocuous features give little indication that he is a demon in human form. It is Krauss who deals the first real blow in the movie, gunning down the above-mentioned unarmed black man during what should have been a routine patrol.
This action, which directly results in a man’s death, prompts the top brass to threaten Krauss with murder charges, though that gesture turns out only to be lip service. It isn’t long before Krauss is returned to duty and sent back into the field. When confronted by his superior officer, Krauss points out that Detroit is “a war zone.” He isn’t wrong. The city does look like hell on earth, trapped in a state of lawlessness that makes it the perfect playground for an unhinged psychopath to kill with impunity. Events soon conspire to bring Krauss the maniac to the Algiers Motel, where he wastes no time acting out his most bestial urges.
After the dust settles from the night of terrifying violence (which must be seen to be believed), it is the characterization of Krauss, portrayed with oozing malice by Will Poulter, that most haunts me. A beautiful scene in which the young black musician, Larry Reed (portrayed by Algee Smith), sings a powerful Gospel tune after surviving Krauss’s reign of terror, is obviously meant to be cathartic and cleansing. But the sting of the injustice refuses to be wiped away. The legal “resolution” of the Algiers incident in a racist show trial is infuriating, but also, sadly, predictable.
For better or worse, it is actor Will Poulter who steals the film as an artistic experience. In the first appearance of Krauss, we see him riding in his car through the ruins of Detroit, remarking to his fellow officers that the police have “failed” the city’s black community. This phony compassion is shown for what it is when, moments later, Krauss shoots a fleeing black man in the back. The scene recreates the first appearance of Nazi Commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List (1993), as he arrives at the Plaszow labor camp in his car. This is the thin line between Krauss and a young Nazi commandant. Like Goeth, Krauss sees his victims as not just worthy of contempt, but as far less than human.
Both Poulter and Bigelow have confirmed that Krauss is a composite character meant to represent all the officers present that night, but I doubt his Germanic name was chosen at random. Both Krauss and Goeth are men better suited for a straitjacket and a padded cell than an officer’s uniform. In a break from civilized sanity, errant government officials handed them guns and the freedom to use them any way they pleased. All that separates the Goeths and Krausses of the world are differently colored uniforms and badges. Perhaps most disturbingly, these characters will always prowl among us likes wolves in human skin, smirking. Especially today in 2017 America, they are confident in the belief that no matter what they do, they’ll always get off scot-free.
A published author and journalist, Menachem Rephun lives and breathes movies, books, music, and popular culture. His reviews have been published online and in the literary journal of Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he majored in English and creative writing, graduating in 2015.