Adrien Brody’s Henry is a substitute teacher who travels from school to school filling the blank wherever needed for a month or so. When he goes to a pretty deplorable school that has ambitionless children who threaten the teachers, only talking in obscenities about teachers and fellow students. Henry is also looking after his grandfather who is in very poor health and shows symptoms of either dementia or Alzheimer’s. As well as this, he’s taking on a teenage runaway who prostitutes herself, Erica (Sami Gayle), as he tries to correct her from her wrong and disturbing life. There’s still more to the story. There’s an emo girl named Meredith (Betty Kaye), a school that is self-destructing with teachers that try and care but can’t, Henry’s flashback moments, a principal who is having problems keeping her job as well as her marriage together. It’s a pretty ambitious and messy story for 97 minutes but it pulls it off.
Carl Lund’s screenplay has been carefully constructed – and most likely trimmed – to keep everything in a messy order so that nothing overwhelms the main story of Adrien Brody’s character and his detachment from the world. A problem the film sometimes suffers is that the dialogue is too heavy-handed and blunt with some lines being a bit too harsh for the scenario but they don’t linger or stain the film; the film, however, does but in a good way. The film is of such heavy subject matter should linger, it should leave you feeling sad, it should leave a feeling of how terrible the situation is; Detachment succeeds on all of these fronts. Its powerhouse performances all round along with its writing and direction create such a force that it’s assaulting you with the defilement of the subject matter. It all reigns so true, so strong, so bold and so depressingly sad.
Back behind the camera with his name proudly attached, Tony Kaye shows off his direction style as well as his cinematographical eye as the cinematographer which sometimes finds some great shots but doesn’t always succeed because some of the aesthetics in the film are ugly. There’s a particular shot in Principal Carol Dearden’s (Marcia Gay Harden) dining room with her husband (Bryan Cranston) that is especially bad. These bad angles in the direction can sometimes be a bit off-putting but, again, they don’t linger for too long and you’re back into the heart of the emotion on show. All disengagements in this chaotic film are only temporary, as one thing sullies it another thing polishes it, making it better than it was as it all comes to its climax. Well, climaxes. There are a lot of stories to wrap up.
A highlight of the film is Adrien Brody. His performance of a man trying to detach himself from becoming too comfortable and linked to those around him is fantastic, making it hard to detach yourself from him. While his life is uncomfortable he pulls it together with apathy or glimmers of interest in people before exploding emotionally in some moments of terrifying rage that others have caused him to finally fall off the edge. He’s helped by brilliant performances all round, too. Even the newcomers Betty Kaye and Sami Gayle are fantastic in this – the latter having a moment that is horrible to watch because of the raw emotion and the power of the performance. Then there’s James Caan, Lucy Liu, Christina Hendricks, William Petersen, Tim Blake Nelson, Blythe Danner, Louis Zorich and even Bryan Cranston’s and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s scenes are perfectly played. It’s insane the cast that has assembled for this.
Education is a place of torment but the roles have been reversed; teachers have now lost all the power while the kids go around spitting in their faces – sometimes literally. While the education board is truly struggling to make schools better in some deplorable states, this is an outcry to fix the broken system for not only the teachers’ sake but the students who are losing out on an education, a way to better themselves, an inspiration. They’ve been left to be nothing but dregs of society competing in a competitive job market that they’ll battle for minimum wage that they’ll work for the rest of their lives. So little ambition is now within the system – in this school and, in fact, most schools still – that no one tries to become something. The rare few with ambition are mocked intensely which isn’t a world we should live in. It should be promoted instead of the idea of grounding yourself. It’s a problem and an affliction.
Detachment is a success and a success that has been poorly received and discredited on the most part. The dislike can come from the messy, cluttered melodrama that it is but instead of being annoyed at a change from one straight narrative, embrace the change. The direction is sometimes a bit weak but the editing rectifies all the directional problems that may incur within it. It’s a film so well paced with a message so relevant that it deserves an audience bigger than what it got and it deserves more of an emotional impact than will resonant throughout.
Detachment shouldn’t be a film that few see, it should be a film that everyone sees and more should love. It’s outstanding. It’s a film that’s effective on first viewing and doesn’t lose its resonance on second, third or fourth viewings. A haunting experience that can leave you feeling a little hollow depending on your focus.
A trailer. That’s it. On this Blu-ray release anyway which is very disappointing.