Synopsis: A substitute teacher who drifts from classroom to classroom finds a connection to the students and teachers during his latest assignment.
In Detachment, eccentric director Tony Kaye’s examination of the everyday minutiae of an urban high school, picked his form of attack–full-scale assault—and decided that was enough. He crams so much horror and extremity into every scenario he presents that the film has no room to breathe. There is a train-wreck quality that keeps this consistently watchable but not for the reasons Kaye wants. A ‘what will he throw at us next’ pull resides. He uses the guise of the school education system as a cipher for a no holds barred sustained shrill that is always pitched at 11, and unfortunately cares only about being pitched at 11.
Now this is Tony Kaye we are talking about. Clearly subtlety was never in the cards. Instead of exploring what lies behind the risible mulch we are subjected to, he focuses on the endless existential crisis of Adrian Brody’s Henry Barthes. Barthes floats from school to school, careful not to stay in any one place for too long. Seething anger lingers underneath his exterior, but he is able to present a serene demeanor in the classroom that is purposely difficult to penetrate.
Henry keeps everyone at arm’s length. Why is he so ‘detached’? Besides the fact that he witnesses everyday atrocities of all kinds, grainy flashbacks, at every opportunity, clue us into Henry’s past. The repetition of it never further illuminates; like the rest of the film, it is a trussed-up sledgehammer. And so we watch him wander through life, wondering where it all went so wrong. Otherwise he spends his time staving off desperately unhappy teenage girls who cast him in the role of savior. Woe is him.
Brody is effective here, making the most of having something to work with, a luxury none of the other actors can claim to having. The centrality of Brody’s character suggests the actor’s complicity (he boasts an exec producer credit too) in aiding Kaye’s self-indulgence. The director and star leave everyone else out to dry in what amounts to a bunch of interchangeable glorified, and at times embarrassing, cameos. Surely there was more material with an ensemble roster this strong, but their roles are collectively whittled down to nothing. Somehow all of the performances outside of Brody from the veterans to the ingénues are distractingly gaudy. All of the acting fits into one of two possible molds; a stilted table read or some kind of amateur theater exercise where the goal is to scream oneself into a state of hysteria.
I can appreciate the tangible wrath fueling every frame of Detachment. In its way, it is a refreshing antidote to the arms-length caramel gooeyness that plagues other plight-of-educators films. One thing going for it is that it is a never dull assault you will not quickly forget. The undeniably high IMDB rating suggests it is having an impact on many who see it, a good thing for sure. Normally I would never name-drop an IMDB rating in a review, but 7.7 with 13,000 votes? That is high. But Kaye’s unparalleled miserablist wankfest favors hyper-stylized rage over any kind of story, idea or purpose.