Directed by Tony Kaye
Detachment begins with a quote from Albert Camus, but even the weariest existentialist would tire of this film's dreary worldview. Detachment takes a full catalogue of the world's miseries and presents it as a carnival of heavy-handed emotion. If one would admire the movie for facing the worst aspects of the human condition without blinking, one equally has to question what purpose there is in doing so other than to fulfill a voyeuristic desire to keep looking.
Detachment is the first narrative feature by Tony Kaye since American History X, the gritty 1998 movie about racism that brought him equal amounts of notoriety and fame (Black Water Transit was shot in 2008 but is unreleased as of yet). Kaye famously attempted to remove his name from the project (he wanted directing credit to go to Humpty Dumpty instead) after the film's final cut was co-opted and altered by its lead, Edward Norton.
It's hard not to think of that when you look at the absurdly star-studded Detachment, which features Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, Lucy Liu, Tim Blake Nelson, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, and others in roles of varied and sometimes unfortunately little importance (Bryan Cranston's five minutes of screen time seems especially a waste). Between his take on racism in American History X and his 2010 documentary about abortion, Lake of Fire, it's clear that Kaye is drawn to big themes and ideas. The topic of choice in Detachment is the deterioration of public education in the United States. Brody plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher brought in to a failing New York high school to teach English to a group of angst-ridden and angry students.
Each character in Detachment is drowning in his own "sea of pain," a particularly apt phrase that Barthes uses in one of the fake interview segments spliced throughout the film. The school principal (Gay Harden) is being forced to resign for failing to improve the school's test scores; Mr. Wiatt (Blake Nelson) can't get control of his classroom, has an unfulfilling family life, and spends lunch hours firmly gripping the school fence with his head thrown back in silent anguish. There's Erica (Sami Gayle), the teenage prostitute whom Henry takes off the streets and into his home, and Meredith (played by Kaye's daughter, Betty Kaye), the lonely, artistically talented student who is emotionally abused by her father. Not even Henry's grandfather (Louis Zorich), slowly dying in a hospital with increasing dementia, manages to escape free of sin.
Kaye, who acts as director of photography for the film as well, conveys this vision of human misery with a wide range of showy techniques, though he seems especially fond of shooting his actors with close-ups. It's a powerful tool that, used to the extent that it is in Detachment, quickly becomes intrusive. As we keep getting pushed against these characters in their most vulnerable moments, the effect is an increasingly overwhelming view into their pain and a growing and unsettling awareness of Kaye's desire to rub our faces in it.
The shot of an elderly woman passed out naked in a hospital bathroom, or the one of a student's bloody arm after hammering a cat to death inside of his backpack, or the brief cartoons that are sprinkled in throughout the movie—one of decapitation by guillotine, another of self-decapitation with a telephone cord—all accentuate the film's bleak view, but to what end?
Detachment, in many ways, is not a film about angst-ridden existentialism but an actual encapsulation of such a philosophy, which Meredith aptly summarizes: "We're born into this. There's nothing to realize but how fucked up things are." Henry may appear at first to be a Robin Williams-like English teacher, ready to meet his students on their own terms and inspire them to greatness, but Kaye and screenwriter Carl Lund's intentions are clearly otherwise. It is true that, taken singly, each character suffers from what are unenviable and very real human problems. But Kaye and Lind's miserabilism is not faulty because the problems are incredible; it's faulty by virtue of being delivered with little tact, grace, or subtlety.
In a sense, Barthes most recalls Ryan Gosling's drug-addicted character in Half Nelson. But unlike that movie, Detachment does not hone in on the particular anguish of two characters but instead continuously pulls out to a larger picture. The result is closer in ambition to your common inspirational high school drama, and when, at the end of the film, Henry reads his students a sorrowful excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher," it is hard not to see it as a mockery of these more lighthearted movies.
Certainly the movie is trying to take a realist approach to the American school system and the human condition. But in insisting on wallowing in the mud of human wretchedness, Detachment is no more respectable, no more true to life, and in fact just as blind as those movies that choose to comfortably if naively travel with their heads in the clouds. What distinguishes it instead is the constant and unfortunate sense of over-exertion that runs throughout the film.
Opens March 16