It’s disconnected, from its audience, from its actors, from itself; it’s aloof, seemingly without purpose and/or without the care of purpose. It is a discombobulated mess with clunky direction, a weak script, flawless cinematography and dynamic acting.
In the film, Adrien Brody plays a New York City substitute teacher who is prone to taking extended jobs, just enough time to reform a troubled class and split before he gets attached to the school or his students. He comes in, makes a difference, then gets out before he actually starts to give a damn.
We’ve seen this movie hundreds of times, the radical-teacher-making-a-difference-in-the-ghetto-school movie. The students learn respect, the teachers learn humility, and all’s well that ends well. But because this formula is getting as old as cops vs. robbers, filmmakers are forced to put a fresh spin on it in order to make their films unique. In Kaye’s vision, that spin manifests itself with sexually explicit dialogue, documentary-esque interviews, equal use of black & white and color, and, most importantly, an unwavering bleakness.
It should work, because no one knows bleak better than Tony Kaye, the man responsible for the marvelous American History X, and the flawless abortion documentary Lake of Fire. But Detachment, as it were, forces the shittiness of its characters’ lives down our throats to the point that we’d rather stop breathing than keep watching. This isn’t to say the movie is too graphic to handle (quite the contrary, in fact), it’s just too much for the sake of being too much.
For example, midway through the film, Brody’s character has invited a teenage prostitute (she can’t be older than 14) to live with him. And although he has no interest in her sexually, the first night she stays over, he gets down on his knees, spreads her legs open, looks up her skirt and calmly asks if she’s, “been raped recently.” She coolly replies no, and then they finish their conversation.
And that’s how most of the scenes in Detachment play out: awkwardly written exchanges sandwiched between it’s-raw-so-it-must-be-real scene development. This, mind you, is not the fault of any of the actors involved. Including Brody, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Lui, Blythe Danner, James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden, William Peterson and more, all contribute fine performances. It’s a shame a cast like this wasn’t given better material to work with.
These kinds of films are too prevalent to stand out on their own, so I give Kaye credit for trying something new. But of recent memory, I can recall only one film in which the execution of a teacher overcoming the odds was inventive, yet wildly riveting. That would be Laurent Cantet’s The Class from 2008. You’re far better off hunting that down than Kaye’s misfire. D