Tony Kaye’s Detachment is the type of film that exists solely in its own somber frame: bleak, unpleasant, and wholly depressing, this messy and grim look at our current education system offers no signs of hope, and – consequently – little reality.
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a full time substitute teacher. He bounces around from classroom to classroom and takes a position for a month or two, then leaves with little trace to be found.
Recently he’s accepted a position at a High school on the outs. Low test scores, less than motivated students, and teachers who are beginning to lose faith in the profession they once loved, all play apart to the final deconstruction of the school.
Detachment is set through three weeks as Barthes spreads knowledge to students, and observes the environment around him. While intelligent, Henry is hurting: mentally and physically.
He drifts around from hallway to hallway, ruminating over his father whose life has run its course (but still is holding on) and a young prostitute who he takes in not to use, but to assist.
Melancholy pervades the soul of every character on screen. All the staff members – whether it be the stressed Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks), the unstable school therapist Dr. Parker (Lucy Liu), or the declining Principal (Marcia Gay Harden) – optimism seems nonexistent.
Stylistically Kaye is a fascinating filmmaker and after his debut American History X in 1998, it seemed inevitable that he’d become one of the great auteurs of contemporary cinema. However since 98’, the director has faded into the pantheon of music videos and straight to DVD features.
Thankfully his craftsmanship is still intact in Detachment: Because to be candid, the rest of the film is a consistent misfire. Expounding on a caliginous atmosphere, there’re far too many subplots and characters, all of which strike similar thematic notes: sadness.
Detachment is the type of film where every character is miserable and discontent with their lives. Sure, everyone has issues. However, in reality, most people fix (or at least attempt to fix) their lives and better themselves. What’s more frustrating is that these characters are upset, but their motivations are unclear to the viewer, as is how they got to this state of self-deprecation.
The narrative contains just as many issues as the characters it’s presenting. I appreciate Carl Lund’s screenplay, which unabashedly doesn’t conform to any type of typical screenwriting. Still, there’s just too much going on and too little of it amounting to anything worth allocating time to.
It’s a shame, really. Adrien Brody delivers (what I feel) his greatest performance since his Oscar winning role in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Evocative, kind, intelligent, yet miserably misunderstood, Henry Barthes is unlike any teacher I’ve witnessed on the silver screen.
And this is mostly true throughout Detachment. The concepts in the script aren’t necessarily original, but the way Kaye constructs scenes, themes, and relationships is unique.
It’s odd. Both the film and the characters on screen often lack a sense of pragmatism and bliss. Which, unfortunately, has made their lives a living hell. Balance is vacant … on both fronts. Depression permeates the screen. The only question to be asked by the end is if the viewer will feel as perplexed and hopeless as the film that’s just unfolded before their eyes.