A glance at Detachment and you might feel a Gangster’s Paradise or ‘Captain My Captain’ just around the corner.
A glance at Detachment and you might feel a Gangster’s
Paradise or ‘Captain My Captain’ just around the corner.
It’s set in a high school, focuses on teachers and students but
Detachment is from Tony Kaye; the
director behind American History X,
a film that also dealt with how children are ‘educated’. Like American History X, Detachment is
hard-hitting; refusing to pull any punches but rather land them, square in the
jaw to powerful levels of poignant drama.
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher
starting at a local high school.
On his first day he’s verbally abused, inspires loner student Meredith (Betty Kaye, daughter of director Tony)
and meets teenage prostitute Erica (Sami
Gayle). Despite his calm
school persona, Barthes is dealing with demons of his own while telling his
students to ‘get out of the sea of pain we all have to get out of’. Amid the angry students and the hostile
and indifferent parents is a staff room full of teachers desperate to make a
difference in these youngsters’ lives but coming to terms with being nothing
more than a bump in the road for them to avoid.
Edited in Kaye’s
typically emotive ways of using different film stocks, the school is always as
gritty as a beach, while peppering the narrative with chalkboard animations, to
highlight the characters’ emotions, Detachment is never an easy watch. It is however an endlessly engaging
one. At times it is overwrought;
Tim Blake Nelson’s character who is ignored in the classroom and at home feels
a little too simplistic, but when it goes for the jugular it hits home with a
ferocious bite. The
misunderstandings and hostility the characters show each other is deeply
unsettling and horribly believable.
There is the
occasional silver lining though.
Barthes paternal nurturing of young Erica as he tries desperately to get
her to value herself, or his ability to inspire Meredith only for his
intentions to be misconstrued by both her and potential love interest, and
maths teacher, Sarah (Mad Men’s
Christina Hendricks) are all perfectly realised incidents that are mesmerising
The staff room of
teachers, with James Caan, Lucy Liu,
Chrsitina Hendricks and in particular school principle Marcy Gay Harden are all intricately detailed characters. If anything it would be nice to see
more of their story rather than brief montages of their lives. Gay Harden’s obvious failing marriage
to Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston
would seem a logical sub-plot but we’re only ever treated to one brief scene
with them both.
Sami Gayle is a
revelation in her feature film debut.
With her androgynous, childlike looks it is harrowing to witness her
selling herself on the streets.
That she then combines this with a cocksure swagger but a desperate need
for Barthes’ attention is to be highly regarded in an actress so young. Like Edward Norton in American History X, Detachment rests on one man’s
shoulders; Adrien Brody. Not since
his Oscar winning performance in The
Pianist has Brody displayed this level of calm melancholia. As Barthes he is a conflicting ball of
cool rage. In the classroom he
oozes confidence and grace under fire.
But in one particularly grating scene he chews up and intimidates a
nurse at his grandfather’s assisted living home. It is a scene that renders both the nurse and the viewer
speechless, this painfully damaged man, hiding behind his teacher’s persona, is
so pent-up and angry at the world it’s hard not to both love and detest
Detachment will make
you think on all those classroom memories of jeering at the person behind the
desk. An often-grueling viewing
experience Detachment is nonetheless a film that offers up a stark