Hot off of last year’s heartfelt sci-fi hit Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve returns to the same genre once more but this time, he has his sights on something even more ambitious: a direct sequel to one of the genre’s most influential and visually quoted works that comes 35 years after the original. Given how much could have gone wrong, it’s remarkable just how much Blade Runner 2049 gets it right, from its flawless production design to its nuanced storytelling that muses on the same existential themes that ran through the 1982 future-noir classic. This is an awe-inspiring follow-up that further expands Blade Runner‘s already vast scope to a futurescape with dazzling depth and a grandeur without rival.
The story follows sullen LAPD detective K (Ryan Gosling) as he carries out his duty as a Blade Runner by tracking down a class of older generation Replicants (advanced robots made to look identical to humans) and “retiring” them as their very existence is illegal. After a visit with one such Replicant, he discovers a chest buried deep in the ground (with the help of a handy drone that detaches from the roof of his car) that leads him on an investigation that could have cataclysmic ramifications on the relationship between man and machine. His search for answers pits him against tech mogul Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Replicant enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) while eventually leading him to legendary detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who’s been in hiding since the events of the first film.
Even more so than its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is a thorough and intentionally paced detective story that uses its futuristic setting to further deepen the mysteries at the heart of its story while adding a layer of insight into how humankind may look 30 years from now. Among the film’s most prevalent themes is that which speculates humankind’s relationship to artificial intelligence and what we deem as “real” or “unreal”, whether it be a Replicant or an interactive advertisement or a sophisticated computer simulation meant to mimic human behavior. The role of Joi played brilliantly by Ana de Armas is the most consistent evocation of this concept, as she is characterized as the most empathic and understanding presence in K’s life despite the fact that her translucent appearance is a reminder that she is ultimately a collection of light dictated by 0s and 1s.
The nimble and seamless effects work is always first-rate, whether it is utilized in small ways like the depiction of raindrops falling softly on the hands of a hologram to the larger scale uses that bring the urban monoliths and pyramids of the first film back to life again. The production design is just as meticulous and makes every space feel like something we’ve never seen before and yet completely believable at the same time; I was struck in particular by the layout of Wallace’s office, whose minimalist wood-based configuration both looks stunning and reminds us that this world’s scarcity of trees means that a room like his could only be afforded by someone of great means. All of this is framed with the excellence of all-time great cinematographer Roger Deakins, previously nominated for an Oscar in his field on 13 different occasions and if there’s any justice, he won’t go home empty-handed next February.
Ryan Gosling continues his streak of seeking out challenging roles that still play to his strengths as a performer and here, he works off the baseline stoicism that we’ve seen from his roles in Nicolas Winding Refn’s films but adds notes of longing and warmth to his role. Similarly great is Ford, who, despite his more limited screentime in this movie, may actually give a better performance here as Deckard than he did in his first occasion playing the grizzled gumshoe all those years ago. Blade Runner 2049 is proof that sequels can be so much more than a retread of their source material and with the right minds at work, they can even supersede the legacy of the original.
The entertaining but cursory new sports biopic Battle of the Sexes from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris covers the events that led to the what could be considered the most infamous US tennis match of all time: the 1973 exhibition between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Functioning more as a personal tale of sexual awakening and ultimately as a message movie about equality, it unfortunately drops the ball when it comes to providing a compelling sports-driven narrative between its two main characters. One may be surprised just how little screen time Carell and Stone share prior to their climactic showdown and the decision to separate these two appealing actors is ultimately to the film’s detriment.
We are introduced to King as she learns of a vast disparity between the men’s and women’s cash prizes in professional tennis tournaments and after trying to plead her case of equal pay to USLTA chairman Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), she instead forms her own all-female rival league. While getting makeovers at the salon with her new teammates, King has an instant connection with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), with whom she pursues a romantic relationship unbeknownst to King’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell). Meanwhile, Riggs learns of King’s newly formed coalition and due to his flare for the theatrical, he challenges her to an inter-gender match with a $100,000 cash prize and bragging rights at stake.
Though the title implies a fair split of time between its central players, it’s clear that this is King’s story from the very beginning and it’s a sensible choice given that her struggle with inequality in professional sports mirrors the same issues of misogyny that women face to this day. Hot off her Oscar win for last year’s hit La La Land, Stone is a tremendously likeable screen presence and an excellent choice to play King as both a fiercely competitive spirit and a largely private person who seems cautious to let her true self through. It’s no surprise, then, that her scenes with Riseborough are among the film’s most memorable, especially the moment when they first meet and within the first few exchanges, its clear that King and Marilyn have a deep connection that throws them both off their game in the best way.
If King’s personal and professional contributions to the story count as the most successful elements of the film, the examination of Riggs as a character and the explanation of his role leading up to the titular face-off is markedly short-sighted by comparison. We find out about Riggs’ steadfast addiction to gambling and he is portrayed by Carell as a flamboyant showman whose proclivity for the outrageous is matched only by his unfettered desire for media attention but that’s about as deep as his character study runs. He proves his excellence as a provocateur by dubbing the match as a “women’s libber” against a self-professed “chauvinist male pig” but the movie never pierces through the public facade to discern Riggs’ true perspective on the hot-button issues.
Even if you don’t know the outcome of the match that was allegedly seen by 90 million people worldwide when it was televised in 1973, there’s not much tension during the film’s final scenes as the winner is eventually revealed. Whether the filmmakers assume a good portion of the audience already knows the outcome of the true event or assume those who don’t know will likely have a sensible prediction based on the narrative arc leading up to it, they don’t seem as interested in the final result as the gender-related controversies that sprung up from the famous duel. That’s likely why Battle of the Sexes feels sub-par as a sports movie but as an exploration of gender politics both past and present, it hits its mark.
Film essayist Kogonada makes his feature debut as both a director and writer with this contemplative and quietly moving tale of two souls who converge during pivotal moments in their respective lives. One of those souls is the introverted Jin (John Cho), who is working in Korea as a literature translator when he receives the news that his estranged father has been hospitalized for an unexpected coma. Once he arrives in the titular Indiana city where his father resides, he is joined by his father’s devoted assistant Eleanor (Parker Posey) as they awkwardly catch up on each others’ lives while waiting for the coma to release its hold.
After talking on the phone one day, Jin meets the young bookworm Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and the two open up to each other as they slowly saunter on opposite sides of a fence that separate Jin’s motel and the library where Casey works. We learn that she’s recently graduated high school and despite that fact that she seems very bright, she forgoes the opportunity of higher education and chooses instead to toil between the bookshelves with her work friend Gabriel (Rory Culkin). Over the course of their time together, Jin and Casey share several conversations that center around their shared interest of architecture (for which Columbus in both the film and real life is apparently renowned) but ultimately blossom out to larger life subjects.
With its walk-and-talk pacing and story of the encounter between an older man and a young woman, there are hints of Lost In Translation and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy embedded within Columbus, although it’s not nearly as chatty as either of them. This is decidedly a more introspective meeting of the minds that is generally more patient in the way it allows its dialogue to unfold, though there are times it comes across as frustratingly sedate as a result. Still, the knowledge and wisdom that they impart to one another rings true to the characters and the actors bring plenty of understated charm to their reserved roles.
Richardson, who is something of a new name and face to me (I didn’t recognize her from the thriller Split earlier this year), gives a glowing and magnetic performance full of grace and warmth that establishes her as a major screen presence. This is a film that’s more about what isn’t said rather than what is said and she’s able to imbue the pauses in between Casey’s words with notes of longing and heartbreak that makes every sentence an emotional wellspring. Although it’s great to see a talented actor like Cho finally get a leading role, I do wish that his character was able to open up a bit more as his proclivity for stoicism got to be a bit tedious especially given the much more heartfelt nature of Richardson’s work.
Kogonada and his cinematographer Elisha Christian capture their Midwestern setting brimming with modernist marvels in an evocative and curious manner that perfectly mirrors the film’s quaint narrative. Beyond its focus on the grand architecture, they also take time to build out the small moments too; I was particularly fond of a sequence between Cho and Posey that’s framed entirely around a bedroom mirror in which we see the reflections of the two talking quietly and reminiscing on the past. Pensive and personal scenes like this characterize Columbus as something of a cinematic zen garden and a welcome respite from an increasingly chaotic world.
The new Darren Aronofsky movie mother! begins with a deceptively simple premise: we are introduced to a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) as she wakes one morning in an secluded country house and looks around for her husband (Javier Bardem). We learn that she spends most of her time cleaning and restoring their home, which recently was subject to a devastating fire, and he spends his days searching for inspiration in an effort to follow up his wildly successful book of poetry. Their seemingly peaceful existence is breached when a man (Ed Harris) who claims to be a fan of the poet and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) show up on their doorstep unannounced and request to stay the night.
From there, it’s safe to say that things spin wildly out of control and with masterworks like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan under his belt, there’s no storyteller that I trust more with a tale about a descent into madness than Aronofsky. The breakthrough with this film and what makes it stand out among the other titles in his filmography is how small the scope of the story is towards the beginning and just how much it encompasses by its conclusion. The film’s sole location, the couple’s home, cleverly follows this concept too, as we’re able to get our bearings on the size of each major room early on but with each escalation in the story, the house seems to expand in impossible proportions.
This is also fitting for a film that applies nightmare logic to near-perfect effect as it lulls us into a sense of security with establishing shots that feel like a dream and then slowly shifts the paradigm of reason to places that are unrecognizable and terrifying. Comparisons to Polanski (Repulsion in particular) are certainly apt in terms of mood while there seems to be echoes of Buñuelian absurdism (The Exterminating Angel especially) as the plot develops but the horror that it generates is unquestionably unique. It’s uncanny just how much tension Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique are able to establish by utilizing just three basic camera angles — close-up, point-of-view and over-the-shoulder — that all center around the central character.
It’s been dispiriting to watch a great young actress like Jennifer Lawrence commit herself to blockbuster franchises like The Hunger Games and the X-Men series over the past five years but I suppose it makes watching a great performance like the one she gives here even more satisfying. Her role is more reactive than we’re used to seeing from her in films like Winter’s Bone and American Hustle, so much so that some may even feel she’s miscast here, but the level of unease and discomfort that she’s able to convey lends yet another dimension to her acting chops. The interaction that she has with Harris and especially Pfeiffer is often loaded with buried emotion, from disgust to jealousy to rage, that manages to find its way to the surface in unexpected ways.
With loads of Biblical allusions and its commentary on humanity and our place in the universe, Aronofsky has crafted a bombastic and challenging work that has already inspired feverish analysis and debate and will no doubt continue to do so in the future. As this is a puzzle movie of sorts, I always come back to the same central question I ask myself when viewing others like it: even if I don’t have every aspect of the picture figured out, did what I see resonate enough with me that I’d find it worthwhile to dig deeper? Immediately after I saw mother!, I knew the answer was “yes” but the staying power that it’s had with me in the days following are an even better indication of its artistic merit.
Based on the 1986 Stephen King bestseller, the new film It opens with a scene that will be familiar to those who experienced the 1990 miniseries: young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is seen chasing his paper boat down a flooded street until it falls into a storm drain. Upon trying to retrieve it, he encounters a sewer-dwelling clown figure who introduces himself as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and offers him a balloon before violently murdering him. It turns out that Pennywise is the manifestation of an evil that’s plagued their town of Derry for many years and after it terrorizes a number of children in the area, Georgie’s brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) forms a group called The Losers Club with other affected kids in order to avenge his brother’s death and put a stop to the malevolent force.
One of the most notable deviations from the source material is resetting the events from the 1950s to the tail end of the 1980s, which not only allows for pop culture references that range from Tim Burton’s Batman to New Kids on the Block but also puts the film in the same timeframe as the mega-hit Netflix series Stranger Things, itself largely influenced by King’s novel. It’s a smart move, given how popular this brand of nostalgia has become the past few years but it also strengthens the coming-of-age angle that sometimes gets upstaged by the clown-centric scares from the original story. With its focus on themes of friendship and loyalty, audiences may be surprised how much this movie bares a resemblance to something like The Goonies (there’s even a cruel variation of the Truffle Shuffle performed by one of the bullies) or Stand By Me as opposed to more traditional horror fare.
Having said that, the marketing of It still hinges largely on the menacing presence of its eminently creepy antagonist and director Andy Muschietti does not skimp on chilling scenes designed to send those with coulrophobia running out of the theater in droves. Skarsgård had some big clown shoes to fill when taking up a role that Tim Curry crafted with terrifying perfection in the aforementioned miniseries and if his work here is comparatively lacking, it has more to do with this update’s reliance on computer-generated effects to amplify his performance rather than a deficiency in Skarsgård’s abilities as an actor. For all of the flaws present in the 1990 version, the visual conception of Curry’s Pennywise and its use of simple, practical effects (the less spoken of the claymation, the better) remain first-rate to this day and I wish this 2017 iteration retained some of this more reserved aesthetic.
The rest of the young cast is generally filled with lesser-known actors, save Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as the hilariously foul-mouthed Richie, but the talented bunch of kids do a convincing job of conveying fear in ways that feel fitting to each of their characters. Standouts include Jeremy Ray Taylor as the overweight Ben and especially Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the lone girl of the group who’s a bit wiser and more mature than her male cohorts. Fans of the book won’t be surprised that this production team is planning a Chapter Two following this film’s impending success that focuses on the adult lives of the Losers Club members and I would be shocked if they don’t already have Amy Adams in talks to play Bev’s grown-up counterpart.
It’s no easy task adapting unwieldy source material like a 1000+ page paperback and while the common practice is to abridge or even omit large sections of a given plot, I was delighted with not only how much of the story remained in the film but how many minor details were included as well. Even with a second installment on the horizon, this first chapter clocks in at a hefty 135 minutes and while there obviously was room for more judicious editing, I have to give the creators credit for pushing towards a more thorough adaptation this time around. Their love and respect of the book shines through in their interpretation and makes It a spectacle of horror with no shortage of heart and humor too.
Equal parts After Hours and Go with a bit of Rain Man in the mix, the new crime thriller Good Time by Ben and Josh Safdie unfolds at breakneck pace largely over one harrowing evening in some of the most desolate and seemingly forgotten areas of New York City. Yet no matter how empty these places seem, there almost always happens to be someone there, whether its an employee pulling an overnight shift or a vagrant searching for something that may not have even been there in the first place. Just like the protagonist, everyone is just doing what they can to survive in their corner of the world and by setting the film at the most desperate fringes of society, the Safdies incorporate the fury of their struggle into the narrative.
One of the film’s opening shots encapsulates this rage on the face of the mentally handicapped Nick (Ben Safdie), who is in the middle of a tense session with his therapist when his brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) barges in and ushers Nick away. It turns out that he needs him for a bank robbery that he’s planned and while the stick-up initially seems to be a success, dye packs that are hidden in the stacks of money go off in their getaway car and Nick gets arrested during the ensuing on-foot pursuit while Connie barely manages to get away with the dirty cash. After multiple attempts to get the funds to afford Nick’s bail, Connie hatches a plan that involves retrieving a hidden bottle of LSD for a quick profit.
During interviews for the final season of Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan spoke about how his writing staff would intentionally paint his characters into corners that would seem impossible to resolve and then brainstormed the most satisfying but plausible ways to get them out of the situation. Good Time exhibits this same kind of think-on-your-feet type of narrative urgency as Connie battles against a myriad of contingencies and dead-ends over the course of his turbulent all-nighter. Though Connie is obviously someone who doesn’t have things in order, he asserts his street smarts in big and small ways (hanging a mat over a barbed wire fence in order to safely traverse it, for instance) that keep him one step of the law.
On top of the spontaneity in their storytelling, the Safdies also establish tension with tight close-ups of their characters that’s designed to give the audience any kind of respite from the manic energy that is often on display across their anguished faces. So much of Pattinson’s excellent performance as Connie can be summed up by the panic that is constantly present in the whites of his eyes, which are often wide open amid the dwindling opportunities that lay before them. When cinematographer Sean Price Williams is afforded the opportunity to implement some flourish, as he does with a beautiful tracking shot of a car rounding a corner and some deft aerial camerawork towards the finale, he makes great use of the expanded scope.
All of this harried paranoia is complemented by a lush and trippy musical score by Daniel Lopatin (known in music circles as Oneohtrix Point Never) that stands alone as one of the most memorably effective soundtracks of the year. The synthesized arpeggios chug along breathlessly with shady dealings that pervade Connie’s attempt to free his jailed brother but the music also goes into a more contemplative soundscape at times that can seem dreamy at one minute and then quickly turn into a nightmare the next. It’s a perfect analog for the dirty, neon-drenched visuals of Good Time that contrasts the far-flung hopes of its anxious characters with the mired reality that they can’t seem to escape.
Based on a popular Japanese manga and anime series, Death Note is an Americanized film adaptation that stars Nat Wolff as troubled teenager Light Turner, who discovers an ancient book with the title “Death Note” on its cover as it falls from the sky. Upon opening the text, he is encountered by an malevolent spirit named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), who explains that the magical book has, among other things, the ability to end the life of whomever Light chooses to write down on any of its pages. After a successful trial that gruesomely dispatches the school bully, Light teams up with classmate and burgeoning love interest Mia (Margaret Qualley) to purge the world of those whom the two teens deem undesirable.
The mysterious deaths of criminals and terrorists across the world sparks interest from international law enforcement as well as an inscrutable detective named only “L” (Lakeith Stanfield), who has managed to pinpoint the source of the killings to Light’s hometown of Seattle. Meanwhile, Light’s father (Shea Whigham), a local police officer, continues to work with L and a host of FBI agents to track down the killer while being oblivious to the fact that Light is responsible for the emerging pattern of murders. L soon narrows his suspicions on Light and after a coffee shop confrontation, Light races to discover L’s true identity so that he can be named in the book and removed from the equation.
Being unfamiliar with the source material, I went into Adam Wingard’s effort with an open mind about how he chose to adapt the sizable comic collection but it’s not hard to imagine that there was quite a bit of material that was lost in translation. There are no shortage of plot holes and pacing issues within this story, which starts out pretty well as a sort of twisted YA love fantasy but goes steadily downhill after a poorly conceived montage transitions the film into a more by-the-numbers police procedural. It’s a busy film packed with plenty of story details and arbitrary rules but every plot element feels like it was condensed down to its most basic form, largely devoid of nuance or subtext so as not to lose any couchbound viewers along the way (lest they get distracted by their smartphones during the movie).
Wolff and Qualley do what they can in their severely unwritten roles but too often they’re relegated to inhabit angsty teen archetypes, even from the opening scene when Light is seen sulking on a set of bleachers while Mia stands triumphantly blasé atop a pyramid of cheerleaders. In worse shape is Lakeith Stanfield, who has been brilliant in smaller roles so far this year (Get Out, War Machine) but is utterly lost in this twitchy, self-conscious role that is a flat-out terrible fit for his low-key charisma. By far the most memorable performer is Dafoe as the voice of the CGI creation Ryuk, who is basically reprising the cackling menace from his Green Goblin role in Spider-Man but nonetheless effective in doing so.
Despite the growing issues that I had with plot or performances, Death Note is not often a boring endeavor thanks mainly to the typically stylized direction from Adam Wingard that utilizes campy genre elements and cheeky 80s-inspired soundtrack choices to liven things up a bit. Sadly, the script credited to three writers (I’ll spare mentioning their names) is ultimately too leaden to lift as it favors an inelegant unpacking of its most basic narrative mechanics over character development or moral complexity. Perhaps the team here was too constricted by the feature film medium and a mini-series or full TV series would have been a better fit but as a standalone movie, I doubt it will reach any of the unconverted.
This hoot of a heist movie marks Steven Soderbergh’s return to the caper comedy genre that he perfected with Ocean’s Eleven and it finds the director in excellent form after a brief hiatus from filmmaking that began in 2013. The stellar cast is led by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as Jimmy and Clyde Logan, two brothers with a seemingly cursed family name who look to turn their luck around by pulling off a big-time robbery at a Memorial weekend NASCAR event in North Carolina. To pull off the high-risk job, they recruit their spunky sister Mellie (Riley Keough) along with wily convict Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his dim-witted brothers, one of whom is a purported computer whiz who knows “all the Twitters”.
That line is just one of many that scored big laughs in the theater and while the screenplay by Rebecca Blunt (rumored to be a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself) is packed with well-crafted jokes, the humor that worked most for me centered around the comedic timing of the performers. Whether it’s the way Craig draws out the word “incarcerated” to describe Joe Bang’s situation to Driver’s nonchalant attitude while constructing a Molotov cocktail, it’s the small choices that the actors made that led to some of my favorite comedic payoffs. This is a film packed with one over-the-top performance after another but somehow I believed that all of these characters were plausible in this universe, which is a testament not only to the acting but to the direction as well.
As a veteran of the genre, Soderbergh revels in the mechanics of the mission as he depicts the random acts of preparation that the characters go through, whether it’s gathering seemingly innocuous props like bags of gummy bears or completing odds tasks like painting cockroaches with nail polish. Though he shows us many of these details before the big heist, he also strategically omits some of the most consequential bits of information the first time around so that we can piece things together on our own in the third act. At one point, Jimmy says of Joe Bang’s brothers “they’re gonna know what we want them to know” and Soderbergh applies that same degree of coyness to his storytelling.
While the Ocean’s series sets its breezily-paced action amid the glitz and glam of Las Vegas, Logan Lucky has a more loose and leisurely feel that fits right in with its southern setting. Soderbergh’s introduction of numerous supporting characters intentionally delays the big action climax that we’re waiting for but as we see how each of the players ties into the heist one by one, the reason for the seemingly convoluted setup becomes much more evident. I don’t doubt that there are plot holes that I may uncover upon repeat viewings of the film but the overall package is so clever and quick-witted that I didn’t have a chance to linger on those potential problems.
Being a tale of blue-collar brothers turned bandits, there are parallels to be made between this and last year’s excellent crime thriller Hell or High Water, although that film’s approach to the region’s economic anxiety was obviously more despairing by comparison. Things are pretty much always played for laughs here but Soderbergh is very wise not to condescend to his characters; even if they do end up as the butt of the joke, there’s still an embedded respect present. As a piece of crackerjack entertainment with loads of funny moments and audacious performances, you won’t find anything much more satisfying this summer (or maybe even this year) than Logan Lucky.
Adapted from the best-selling memoir of the same name, The Glass Castle depicts the unorthodox childhood of writer Jeannette Walls (portrayed by Ella Anderson in flashback) as she moves from town to town with her parents and three siblings. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) seems to be full of inspiration and wisdom when speaking with his children but we soon learn of personal demons that manifest themselves through alcoholism and fits of anger that contribute to his inability to maintain a steady job. Her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), an aspiring painter, doesn’t fare much better in attempting to support her kids but still remains hopeful even as their financial situation gets increasingly dire.
This backstory is intercut with scenes of Walls as an adult (Brie Larson) in late 1980s New York, now a writer for a gossip column who is happily engaged to a promising financial analyst (Max Greenfield). Her attempts to expunge the memories of her painful past fail when her parents turn up, desperate as ever, in Manhattan and they seek to reconnect Jeannette with the rest of her family in a series of doomed meet-ups. Her parents don’t give up, however, and through continued exposure with them, Walls rediscovers the fleeting moments of bliss that occurred during her rocky upbringing and aims to find resolution with her struggling parents before it’s too late.
The film and its director Destin Daniel Cretton seem to contend that Rex and Rose Mary are worthy of such absolution but based on the two hours that I spent with them, I can’t say that I agree with that stance. These are more than flawed characters trying to make their best out of a bad situation; these are narcissistic, negligent, selfish parents who demonstrate time after time that they’re ill-equipped to handle raising one child much less four. Not only does Cretton often seem to give them a pass on their reprehensible behavior but he tends to double down on his efforts by attributing bits of noxious pseudo-philosophy to their actions, as when Rex repeatedly throws Jeannette into the deep end (literally) of a public pool and then has the gall to follow up with “I can’t let you cling to the side your whole life.”
Rose Mary gets in on the action too and early on as well, as we’re only a few minutes in when she tells her hungry child (probably 3 or 4 years old at the time) to make her own lunch since she can’t be bothered to take a break from her painting and Jeannette’s attempt to boil hot dogs results in horrifying burns. What, exactly, is the point of opening the story this way if I’m to have anything but utter contempt for a woman who would allow something so despicable to happen to her young daughter? In case this wasn’t enough, the plucky strings from Joel West’s cloying musical score are a distressing reminder that this movie thinks it’s a quirky dysfunctional family tale à la Little Miss Sunshine when it’s closer to something out of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre spin-off.
If there’s a saving grace, it’s in the high-quality cast that’s been assembled and the generally excellent work (inconsistent accents aside) that they showcase even with such problematic material at the forefront. Harrelson and Watts do a reliably solid job but it’s Larson that again proves she’s the real deal following her Oscar win for Room, as she navigates through complex emotional territory without losing the audience in the process. Even the caliber and conviction of the performances doesn’t change the fact that I spent so much time rolling my eyes during the events of The Glass Castle that it’s possible I saw more of the ceiling in my theater than what was taking place on the giant screen in front of me.
Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams up with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal for a consecutive third time to create their most unflinching and unshakable material yet with this stark period piece. Detroit centers around the Algiers Motel incident that took place in the summer of 1967 when racial tensions and rioting were at an all-time high for the titular city and no one seemed to have a feasible solution to the problem. The film itself doesn’t provide any easy answers either and will no doubt generate a variety of impassioned opinions, both positive or negative, but it’s difficult to deny the skill and dedication that Bigelow has brought once again to her craft.
After some early scenes of context that outline the tumultuous setting, we’re introduced to several key characters who eventually converge at the Algiers Motel, including up-and-coming soul singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and local security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). When a man fires a starter pistol from the window of one of the rooms, the National Guard and local police overrun the building and round up all of its residents to seek out the potential shooter. Things turn from bad to worse when the officers led by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) resort to intimidation and violence to find their suspect, which ultimately leads to multiple killings with dubious motives.
The film’s centerpiece is the hour or so that captures the horror of that event at the Algiers and while it’s grueling to watch and can be repetitive at times, every artistic and technical aspect comes together to make it an almost overwhelmingly gripping experience. The acting, especially in the case of Poulter’s sadistic policeman, is first-rate all around and does the most to contribute to the idea that everything we’re seeing is just how it was experienced by those who were there that night. The guerrilla-style camerawork from Barry Ackroyd (best known for his work with director Paul Greengrass) is fast-paced but always focused clearly during pivotal points of action both big and small.
Bigelow spends most of this long sequence at the motel to showcase the cruelty of men abusing their powers but she also takes care to assert the humanity of the victims before and after the event. For instance, we meet Dismukes as he settles a dispute in the street between a young black man and a white officer but in doing so, we learn of his personal dilemmas about keeping the peace when doing so was sometimes perceived as cowardly by those in his community. Reed is another character who gets a fair amount of screen time, most notably in the scenes where his singing is showcased and Smith’s performance is so good that his voice alone goes through its own narrative arc and informs the emotional state of his character.
If the film suffers, it’s due to the fact that neither the often clumsy build-up to the Algiers incident nor the generic courtroom follow-up reach the dramatic heights of that captivating stretch in the middle. I suspect that if Bigelow had focused more thoroughly on one character, as she did so well in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, it could have given the story a more personal framework and made things a bit more cohesive from a narrative perspective. Detroit is instead more a sociological study of a truly disturbing moment in American history that has a saddening amount of relevance to the current state of race relations even 50 years later.