Here’s a film that explores the same old bleak story that so many others have in the past. Here’s a film about unruly teenagers falling apart, while their invisible teachers try to make an impact on their lives. And here’s a film about a young teacher checking into hell and hoping to change it all around. He is of course first handled with hostility by every student only to be recognised as a great teacher and the kindest human being on his last day teaching in the school. Yes, it has all been said before. Most often with a miserable background such as this. However Tony Kaye’s Detachment has something that none of the previous films dealing with the same story and reminding us over and over again just how much life sucks, had. Detachment shines thanks to its brilliant performances and its unbelievable script.
After his 1998 bang with American History X, director Tony Kaye has given us very few things to talk about (namely, his pitch-perfect documentary Lake Of Fire that deals with the abortion debate). However it looks like this filmmaker knows how to make a comeback. In 2011 he came out with Detachment, a film starring Adrien Brody and telling the story of Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who wants to make a difference in the hearts and lives of his students, but struggles to do so as he’s stuck in a lonely, evil, loveless and filled-with-pain world that drowns him just as much as it scares and frustrates the teenagers of the burned-out public school that he works in.
Now, I could never be anything even close to objective when it comes to Adrien Brody (The Jacket, The Darjeeling Limited, Midnight In Paris, The Pianist, The Village). As far as I’m concerned, he is one of the most talented, most versatile and intelligent actors that cinema has ever seen, and in Detachment he offers nothing less than yet another mesmerizing and haunting performance. Henry Barthes is, thanks to Brody, the perfect combination of power, confidence and detachment on the one hand and utter frustration, fear and entrapment on the other. Whatever the story, direction and dialogue ask of him, he delivers powerfully as well as devastatingly, proving that he can handle even the most exploitative roles with unparalleled intelligence and comfort. The supporting cast that includes Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden and Blythe Danner is very cleverly put together. All characters are well-developed and each and every actor does a great job bringing yet another shattered person into that miserable limbo, somewhere between life and death.
Tony Kaye’s direction is a mix of a few different things. No doubt his handheld-styled camera work, the dodgy city settings and the wide lonely spaces add to the overall loneliness, misery and entrapment, however at the same time he often tries to take pity on his audience and to lighten this demoralising messthrough animation and long literary references that supposedly give us a little time to breathe. Needless to say that most of his tricks deliberately fail and each time a new scene begins, we are once again knocked down, this time harder than before.
But even more that what has already been said, what makes Detachment really stand out is its exceptional script. Screenwriter Carl Lund achieves something that is very rare, which is to make an utterly depressing and disturbing film come across as thought-provoking and inspiring, rather than purely sad and miserable. Coming from someone who is not a big fan of overly distressing dramas, this one is all that, but thanks to the script, at the same time much more. The pain is not shown, it’s told. And in fact it’s not told in a raw and dry kind of way, rather it’s given through literary references, poetry verses and philosophical quotes. Misery is floating in the air, people are dying due to lack of love and others are left alone to deal with the loss and pain, but all this is not given through to the audience cruelly or heartlessly. On the contrary, Carl Lund’s screenplay turns it all into a beautiful requiem for life and an poetic epilogue for closeness.
Read at Unsung Films: American History X, also directed by Tony Kaye