Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Cinema Scent: Detroit (dir. Kathryn Bigelow; 2017)

There had to be at least one mention of it. About two-thirds of the way through Kathryn Bigelow’s gut-punching Detroit - an account of the horrific events which took place at the Algiers Motel in 1967 - the white police officer Krauss (memorably played by Will Poulter in an inspired bit of casting) asks Hannah Murray's Julie how she can stand to mix with black men. Doesn't she find the smell of their Afro Sheen unbearable? It’s a startling mention of scent in a film dealing with a subject which often sees smell descriptions hurled as insults: racism. In fact, so frequently is body odour used as a marker of separation between acrimonious groups of humans, it’s surprising that there aren't more references to it in Detroit.

Then again, Bigelow rarely uses words to spell out the sensory moods of her movies, and despite the lack of overt olfactory references in her latest effort, there's no question that a powerful stink hangs over the entire tale. As in many of her other films - notably Strange Days, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker - it’s the stench of paranoia and humiliation. Through a potent blend of hyperactive camera moves, brutal, sweat-soaked lighting and an unpredictable (arguably ill-judged) sense of pace, she creates an atmosphere of sheer terror that covers the screen like an oil-slick of sin.

However, in this particular film, her most powerful techniques perhaps aren't the visual ones. Every now and then, the story is permitted a few bursts of music, either to elicit joy -when The Dramatics are rehearsing for their stage show - or to convey abject desperation - in the moment when the Algiers prisoners are commanded to pray for mercy. It's no coincidence that this most human of traits - the desire and ability to create song - is used as a metaphor in a story dealing so palpably with inhumanity. And when the music is allowed to soar and speak of things that might have been, it sure does smell sweet.

For more Cinema Scent reviews, please click here.

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