Detachment wants nothing more than to rip your guts out and make you feel like shit for 98 minutes… in a good way. It’s a sort of emotional horror movie for educators. A vision of a school in such disrepair that all the teachers can hope for is to ensure their students don’t kill them or each other by the end of the term. Directed by Tony Kaye, best know for the equally cheery American History X, it’s a movie that revels in misery with teachers who can’t even inspire themselves, students defined by self-destructive apathy, and a world outside the school comprised of death-dealing hospitals and underage prostitution. Kaye willfully shoves his audiences’ face into a pile of dog crap and asks them to appreciate the experience. The movie would be easy to write off for those shamelessly manipulative tactics were it not for the fact that Carl Lund’s script is so deceptively insightful and the performances from the entire cast are universally strong. It might ruin your day to watch the movie, but at least it feels like the harsh experience was done with a purpose, even if Kaye’s execution is somewhat muddled.
The film is filled exclusively with characters on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The protagonist is Adrien Brody’s Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher with a tragic past who voluntarily dives in and out of failing schools with a carefully constructed wall of cynicism and emotional numbness that allows him to teach aggressively disinterested students without taking their insults or anger personally. He uses English lessons as a vehicle for rants about the crumbling current society that actually inspires his students to listen by venting their shared frustrations (he’s not some sort of Dead Poets Society figure though, he doesn’t care enough to commit to a school and earn that status). He enters into a high school in particular crisis: the principal (Marcia Gay Harden) is about to be fired, the teaching staff is exhausted and disgusted, parents never enter unless to fight, and the student counselors are played by Lucy Liu and James Caan in particularly seedy modes. The one student we get to know is a hopelessly dejected overweight artist on the verge of self-destruction (Betty Kaye, Tony’s daughter). Good thing that Brody can escape to a happy home life with a dying grandfather, memories of a mother’s suicide, and a teenage prostitute he forms an antagonistic friendship with. Like I said, this ain’t happy-go-lucky stuff. If Michelle Pfeiffer was assigned here, she’d probably just kill herself regardless of how many cool leather jackets she owns or Coolio hit singles she listens to.
The first thing that has to be acknowledged about the film are the incredible performances. Brody takes on a difficult protagonist and somehow makes him feel wholly empathetic without ever curbing the edge off his considerable flaws. He’s in practically every frame of the film and never once deviates from his unrelentingly pained path. The likes of Marcia Gay Harden and Tim Blake Nelson take on the thankless roles of exhausted staff members running on fumes and somehow find human cores to characters who are walking ghosts of their former selves. Equally impressive are Liu and Caan, both actors who typically play parodies of themselves at this point, yet admirably ditch their personas for sleazy counselors with no advice left. Carl Lund has a gift for creating complex failures and it’s easy to see how the screenwriter’s debut attracted so much recognizable talent. Without any rousing inspirational speeches or fluffy teacher/student connections, he manages to find some hope at the bottom of his miserable well and seems to have some point to make amidst all this pain. Unfortunately, it feels like director Tony Kaye lost the thread of the screenplay at some point in the production and the film never comes together as satisfyingly as it should.
While Kaye only has a handful of movies to his name, he’s already built up a notorious reputation. He almost took his name off of his incendiary debut American History X when it was taken away from him during editing by producers and a star worried that he lost the movie through self-indulgent embellishment. Given that Kaye’s cut was never released, it’s hard to say if that was actually true of American History X, but that very much feels like it was the case here. The movie that’s founded with harsh realism is filled with distracting show off directing tricks. Documentary-style interviews with Brody frame the story without adding much, classroom chalkboard writing often spirals off into pointless animated interludes, and countless scenes are reduced jump cut montages that add nothing beyond a stylish aesthetic. Kaye achieves a veneer of pretty show off filmmaking, just not in a way that underlines the film’s thematic or narrative goals. If anything, Kaye’s directorial tricks detract from them. Interesting characters played by recognizable talent seem to disappear in and out of the movie without reason with their roles clearly left on a hard drive of B-role footage somewhere (particularly Bryan Cranston, who appears in a single scene cameo that seems unworthy of his stature, and has also admitted to a feud with Kaye that might explain his absence). Even worse, those intriguing characters appear to have been sheered out in favor of the two least interesting subplots involving a clichéd teen-hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and a climatic suicide that belongs in an after school special. It would be fascinating to see a rough cut version of this movie true to Lund’s original script, but that ain’t ever going to happen.
Despite all of Kaye’s obvious and unfortunate tampering, Detachment still works surprisingly well. The eccentric director does know where to put a camera, so the movie at least looks good and what remains of Lund’s writing and the cast’s performances is undeniably powerful. The movie constantly teeters on the brink of matching the impressively edgy teacher drama Half Nelson, but lacks the necessary commitment to unflinchingly realism to get there. The moments that work (and there are many) are strong enough to make this a darkly compelling examination of a hopeless high school environment, it’s just a shame that the handful of scenes that drop the ball are impossible to ignore. Detachment still warrants a recommendation for being a surprisingly mature film for adults about complex issues. You just need to know in advance that this film will leave you deeply depressed and slightly frustrated.