Director: Tony Kaye.
Screenplay: Carl Lund.
Starring: Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye, Louis Zorich.
Having been a big fan of “American History X” in 1998, I was eager to see what else director Tony Kaye had in store. Unfortunately, he didn’t make that many films and those that he did – “Lobby Lobster” and “Black Water Transit” – didn’t quite reach a bigger audience. As a result, I was happy to come across “Detachment” which proves that Kaye hasn’t lost any of his style or starkness.
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher brought into a struggling urban high school to teach English and work with kids who are performing at a very low grade. Being a substitute is exactly the way Henry likes it as he deliberately tries to avoid making genuine connections with people (and that includes his pupils). As time goes on, though, Mr. Barthes realises the pupils’ need for his input and which forces him to confront his own demons and isolation.
“And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.”
As the film opens, this is the quote from French philosopher Albert Camus that’s scribed onto a blackboard before we are introduced to the protagonist and the personal conflict he finds himself in. On the one hand, he’s a caring individual but on the other, he deliberately keeps a distance from people as he’s consumed by a guilt that doesn’t belong to him. His detachment is also reflected in the frustrated and disillusioned pupils he teaches, making this a melting pot of emotionally dysfunctional people. It’s this very mirroring in the individuals that make this quite a thought provoking character study, as well as a diatribe on the state of the American educational system and the problems therein.
Kaye shoots the film with an edgy, fly on the wall approach, utilising the shaky-cam technique and numerous close-ups that bring you closer to the characters and their inner turmoil. There’s also the assembly of a very impressive cast, all-be-it, a lot of them are wasted in thankless, underwritten roles. The likes of Bryan Cranston, Blythe Danner and William Petersen needn’t have turned up at all, but James Caan lightens the mood whenever he’s onscreen and the young unknowns get a chance to shine instead; particularly, (the director’s daughter) Betty Kaye, who develops a crush on her teacher and Sami Gayle as a young prostitute who develops a similar infatuation. The real star, though, is a brooding and commanding Brody. He’s rarely offscreen for the entirety of the film and even though it’s no surprise that he delivers his usual reliability, he’s especially good with a very powerful and charismatic performance. However, the cast and the impressive handling of the material can’t save the film from being overly depressing, or when drawing to it’s conclusion, descending into melodrama from which it never fully recovers.
Cut from the same cloth as the, Oscar nominated, Ryan Gosling movie “Half Nelson“, director Tony Kaye delivers a good insight into the difficulties of teaching and the importance of instilling a good childhood and sense of self in our youth.