Almost fifteen years on from his directorial debut American History X (his 2009 feature Black Water Transit has yet to see the light of day), British filmmaker and studio rebel Tony Kaye returns with Detachment. It’s a film which is certain to polarise viewers and critics (much like his previous feature did) yet Kaye can always be called on to provide the emotional fireworks, even when he makes some misjudgements with the material.
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute English teacher who uses his temporary placements as a way of trying to instil in his students a sense of worth and ownership over their lives in a system which is on the brink of collapse. His latest assignment lands in a particular tough inner-city school, where many of the administration face a daily battle to maintain their sanity whilst trying to do their jobs. The embattled, impassioned head (Marcia Gay Harden) is on the cusp of being shunted out, while the rest of her colleagues battle against the apathetic, aimless attitudes in the classroom.
Barthes’ nurturing ways continues outside of school when he feels compelled to take in a young teenage prostitute called Erica (Sami Gayle) after he witnesses her being mistreated one evening following a visit to see his infirmed grandfather. Can the teacher invest so thoroughly in these lives (and in such a fleeting manner) without any emotional repercussions?
Some may take umbrage with Kaye’s fragmented, overly self-conscious directorial style here. As American History X showed, he’s hardly the most subtle of filmmakers. Sometimes the dream-like inserts and visuals are piled on in obvious and unnecessary ways (the chalkboard animations begin to grate early on) but he manages to rein in his self-indulgent side enough to provide a powerful slice of social drama which benefits immensely from some fantastic performances by a cast of Hollywood actors who have never looked so real before on screen. Kaye’s own past as a documentary maker is very evident through his ability to find a reality in many of the scenes, even if these moments have to continually wrestle (schizo-like) with his heightened promo/ad visual style of filmmaking.
After a slew of B-movie roles which failed to really play to his strengths, Brody once again shows what a magnetic presence he can be, given the right material. Providing a weary on-camera narration throughout the film, he is incredibly touching as a troubled soul whose own life is as equally fragile and tormented as many of the students he seeks to help. His classroom rhetoric could easily come across as preachy and didactic in lesser hands, but instead it’s both commanding and stirring, making it easy to see why many of the students are drawn to his character.
The actor is aided and abetted by some truly memorable supporting turns by the likes of Tim Blake Nelson, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu (yes, she really can act!) and Sami Gayle as the vulnerable teen he rescues from the streets. Caan in particular is terrific, and his humorous and unorthodox means of reining in his more wayward students present a loose and jovial side to the actor previously unseen.
Kaye comes close to betraying what he’s achieved with his characters towards the end where things descend into unwelcome melodrama, but despite its problems, Detachment is still a raw, highly-emotional and absorbing piece of work which will stay with you long after the credits are over. Those who are toying with taking up teaching as their profession may want to stay away, however.