REVIEW: Tony Kaye's Detachment a Mesmerizing Misfire

Movieline Score: 6

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.

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  • Tony Kaye’s film, Detachment, is so raw that nearly every moment of it feels just like a wound that is exposed to air or water without the the hope of the covering comfort of a bandage. I highly recommend this film and offer all praise to every performance, especially Brody, but also that of James Caan and the director’s daughter, Betty Kaye. I found it deeply moving and deeply troubling.

    It is presented as a kind of documentary with the protagonist, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), an itinerant “long-term” sub, often providing commentary in a kind of after-the-fact interview lamenting the total loss of guidance and hope in schools and communities. This loss is a reflection of home. All things are hollow (yes, you’re right to make the association with Eliot’s poem).

    The film begins with some words 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,” being written as a kind of animation on a chalkboard within the image of a book’s pages.

    Henry is a walking wound who is not a representative of the film’s title; he is not detached though he has tried to build a life with no attachments. But a lack of attachment does not make one humanly detached from the world of pain that swirls around him. It is human detachment generally that is being diagnosed and described here. Henry is figured, as the Camus indicates, as the man who knows (maybe “feels” is better) that self must be insignificant in order for true human feeling to be communicated, in order to become a signified thing–in order to be present in the world–the world of others–we must be “un-selved” in order to be open to it. We find “self” within community, within the presence of others, within the human, by dignifying all that is human.

    Henry is a walker in the city at night; Henry rides the bus; Henry lives alone in a studio apartment.

    In truth the movie has depth enough as a character study of Henry (portrait of a serial killer–that phrase just popped into my head), but it is the relentless accrual of movie cliches, played straight, that oddly create a more universal and modern lament. A movie about and inspirational teacher is the first cliche, though Henry is no Joe Clark and this is no Dead Poet’s Society. The second cliche is that of the pixie street waif prostitute (“kid” or “Erica”), maybe 14, whom Henry saves by allowing her into his life. They become together a thing they cannot be apart.

  • guest says:

    I saw this movie last night and cried throughout 80% of it. This is not simply a story about the state of education and schools but something much more.

    The reviewer obviously missed all of this. Perhaps she should just stick to the easy movies....

  • I totally agree with Douglas Storm. Many critics dissect films and totally miss the human aspect, the validity of the depicted feelings and situations as though it is beneath their dignity (or ability) to adress such things. Noticed the same thing om my coursei in Flim criticism at the Universiry. It is not enough to intellectualize about painful feeling and feel superior about it. Perhaps Mr Gillmore feels more comfortable with Aliens and car chases and all that.

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  • Critic says:

    I was troubled by this movie in good, intended ways, as well as bad. In the latter category is the implication that white and Asian teachers can be treated horribly by African-American students who escape the consequences by crying racism. It doesn't help that two of the female teachers look like supermodels. A Martian watching this would think that beautiful buxom redheads are cursed on Earth.