REVIEW: Tony Kaye's Detachment a Mesmerizing Misfire
Detachment, the first feature from American History X director Tony Kaye to see theaters since his stunning 2006 documentary Lake of Fire, is a film about a high school substitute teacher that often comes across like the creation of a precocious student. I don't mean that to be a damning critique, though Detachment is a mesmerizing misfire -- it's just that it has the uncomplicated earnestness and hyperbolic melodrama of teenage poetry.
It's a film that starts with a quote from Camus ("and never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world") and has a main character named Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody at his most puppy-dog-eyed, who in his off hours befriends and chastely takes in a pixie of an underaged prostitute named Erica (Sami Gayle). Henry's just started at a new school in which all of the attendees are troubled, indifferent or violent, and the embattled staff struggles to remain engaged and not give in to despair as they wage what feels like a hopeless war on behalf of a student body that simply doesn't care.
Detachment was written by Carl Lund, a former public school teacher, and compresses a lot of thoughts about "kids these days" into a concentrated dose that's too over-the-top to be realistic but that muddles any signifiers of how heightened it's meant to be. The individual students who emerge from the crowd represent composites of ideas, not characters -- the arty chubby girl, the hyper-aggressive African-American boy, the blame-assigning mother, the chick dressed like a stripper, the budding sociopath. The instructors and administration get more personality: Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks) is a young teacher who has still managed to hold on to some of her idealism despite a pupil's spitting in her face in her first scene, while Mr. Charles Seaboldt (James Caan) is entertainingly jaded about everything (he asks a skimpily dressed girl if he can see her nipples, not as a request but as a confirmation of fact). Mr. Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) stands in the yard clutching a chain link fence while on break, convinced that he's just as invisible at school as he is when he goes home to a wife and child who can't be bothered to look up from their TV and computer screens. Lucy Liu is the counselor who weeps that she's "a total burnout," and Principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) is getting ousted at the end of the school year for not playing along with the politics of No Child Left Behind and private contractors.
Above all this turmoil stands Henry, our martyr of the substitutes, who visits his senile grandfather, weeps while riding the bus and is haunted by the memory of his unstable, dead mother. Henry believes he's chosen a noncommittal life free of attachments, but of course he's anything but indifferent, as seen in his caring for Erica, in the attention he offers to the talented, unhappy Meredith (Betty Kaye, the director's daughter), in his devotion to his only ailing relative despite what the man may have done when younger, and in the fact that he's actually a devoted teacher. Henry's intended numbness is brought to light in a monologue delivered to camera that the film sporadically cuts to, as the tastefully disheveled Brody sighs that "Most of the teachers here, they believed at one point they could make a difference." The film's amplified qualities could be looked at as an expression of Henry's inner state of being, except that plenty of scenes take place without him around, as when Carol returns home to the husband (Bryan Cranston) she can no longer connect with or Meredith is told by her father to lose weight and "paint something cheerful."
Detachment is overwhelming and didactic, intolerably so in some moments, as when a suicide is telegraphed from far away, or a segment in which no one comes to Parents' Night and two of the long-term teachers meet by chance in an empty classroom, reminiscing about the good old days. But there's no ignoring the power or rawness of its emotions, which seem to warp the feverish visual style. They're sincerely meant and clarion clear even when the film gives off a whiff of overdetermined bullshit, like its angel-faced child streetwalker or its glimpse of an oppressively fancy living room with curtains the same pattern as the wallpaper. There's no subtext to the film: It bluntly lays its agenda in the open, and its characters are mouthpieces for a uniformly bleak vision of the public education system that's actually summed up with a final image of the school, empty and decrepit, papers blowing everywhere.
The final product has a touch of Taxi Driver to it, without the distance of knowing that this protagonist is in the midst of a breakdown -- Detachment appears to fully buy into Henry's self-crucifixion and his vision of an abandoned, uncaring generation of kids speeding down their separately chosen roads to nowhere.