Joseph Kahn’s debut feature Torque was an odd film that led to some pretty fascinating defences, in particular from online critics who believed that the film had been crucially misunderstood. Whilst the film may be misunderstood in some ways it is far from being a film worthy of high praise and the extent to which Kahn manages to have his cake and eat it with the supposed satirical approach leaves the film feeling a little off-balance and unsatisfying.
Torque was very much a studio picture though and therefore subject to a certain degree of compromise. For Kahn’s follow-up though he has chosen to do something quite extraordinary and finance the film almost entirely on his own. From a script written with Mark Palermo he has directed the film without studio input/interference and in exactly the way he wanted to. The result is as close to a singular vision as we get in film and what a vision it is.
Detention begins at it means to go on with a highly stylised, pop culture referencing and almost impossibly kinetic opening that introduces us to the town of Grizzly Lake, its high school and the students that go there. The effect of this opening is that your mind races to match the speed of the delivery and digest everything as it flies past. What is perhaps most satisfying about the way Kahn and Palermo deliver information in Detention though is that it all makes sense, surprisingly so.
Indeed, whilst watching the film it is easy to begin thinking that the pair are simply throwing in as many pop culture references as possible in attempt to be cool or uber-meta. This is not just pop culture randomly sprayed on celluloid though, these references add up within the film with even the most off-hand remark, “You’re my Michael Keaton” for instance, having a pay off later on and a reveal that gives this sort of comment resonance and a logical place within the film.
That’s not to say the film adheres to simple A follows B plot though. Far from it. A time travelling bear, a serial killer slasher, a boy who is part fly and the end of the world all come into play in what is a ludicrously dense script filled with more complexity than the shallow surface of referential fun may suggest. This is the film’s greatest strength; the speed of delivery, mixed with banal reference points and an absurdist attitude to plotting all provide a delivery method for what is an oddly sweet story about a teenager navigating the horribly trite modern world we live in. The characters are clearly confused, they struggle with their identity and they are incessantly obsessed with how they appear to others. Detention is a film that seems to capture pretty accurately the way a lot of teenagers are almost certainly feeling, packaging it in a way that is relevant to teenagers now.
The packaging of all of this is where Detention really astounds too though. The film’s construction is in many ways quite brilliant. Despite relying on techniques that are the antithesis of immersive filmmaking, on-screen text, non-digetic everything, discontinuous editing and so on, Kahn manages to pull off something quite extraordinary in the tight piecing together of various techniques. As an audience member you are totally absorbed by the film and once you’re in Kahn’s grip he doesn’t really let go. In fact the only point at which Kahn loses his way is when the pace slows down to something approaching normality around two-thirds of the way through, in a sequence that feels like it lasts forever but in any other film would be relatively quick paced. A minor stumble though in an otherwise superlatively paced film. Detention will almost certainly polarise audiences with its stylistic excess but it truly is an incredible achievement and a stunning film from a director who clearly knows what he’s doing.