Detachment is the latest film from the British director Tony Kaye, best known for ‘American History X’ more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, unlike AHX, it is mostly a frustrating experience.
The film opens with a warning, but it is a warning that comes too late; money has been exchanged and seats already taken: “And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.” These are the words of Albert Camus, chosen by Kaye to open the film.
The frustration that arises when watching the film comes from the lack of follow up to an initially entertaining and creative set-up. The film opens as a documentary, before digressing into a drama, as we are introduced to substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), who arrives at an unnamed tough inner-city school. The drama takes place over one month as Barthes attempts to motivate his dispirited students, and through his eyes we are privy to the struggles of the modern American teacher. Complicating matters, Henry takes in teenage prostitute Erica (Sami Gayle), looks after his ageing grandfather, and there is a burgeoning romance with Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks) that promises much.
The film unravels primarily because Detachment’s short running time cannot accommodate Henry’s personal drama, whilst also serve as a scathing and in-depth commentary on inner-city schools; director and writer seem to have been unwilling to make necessary creative choices, and reign in their ambitions. I have a great deal of sympathy for Mad Men’s Christina Hendrick’s, who suffers most from this indecision; her character’s story arc side-lined in favour of Henry and Erica’s storyline, the Ms. Madison character underused and disregarded. Despite few scenes, James Caan delivers a mesmerizing performance, stealing the film from Brody. Long after the credits have finished rolling, the overblown confrontational humour of Charles Seaboldt and his pill popping acceptance of the hopelessness of it all is memorable, but recalls the film’s tonal problems; comedic moments on occasion mis-timed.
Some way into the film I thought the filmmakers had found their film, a moment to unite Henry’s past and present. It would have provided Detachment with a focus and direction, salvaging both the film and Hendricks’ character. However, the film then proceeds to unravel, failing to live up to its initial promise. Kaye does demonstrate a penchant for animation, interspersing the film with animated sequences that convey the frustrations of his characters, effective in helping him to tell the story with a touch of flare. I can’t help but think back to Terry Gilliam’s animated interludes in the Python comedies, and it is clear that Kaye is a director who understands the creative potential of merging live action and animation.
Ultimately, Detachment is an angry and cynical film. There is nothing wrong in that, were it not for Kaye and writer Lund’s apparent belief that they were treading new ground in their expose of the “No kid left behind” policy. The truth is that Detachment lies firmly in the shadow of ‘The Wire’, whose season 4 turned its attention to the problems of inner-city schools. Despite its own cynicism ‘The Wire’ maintained a glimmer of hope, whilst effectively portraying a sense of hopelessness in an entertaining and engaging way. If Kaye’s aim was to create the feeling of Detachment in the audience, then he was successful, but sadly the film is unsuccessful as either a drama or social commentary. Detachment introduces the teachers, department for education, students and missing parents, and attempts to answer the question of who is to blame for the failure. Unfortunately, it then loses itself in the searing rage and cynicism of its filmmakers, meandering in an urban hell until it proposes an unsatisfactory and ultimately naïve answer.
Review by Paul Risker
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