Review: Detachment (2011)

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Cast: Adrien Brody, Christina Hendricks, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Tony Kaye
Country: USA
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: Detachment opens in New York on March 16th and in select cities starting March 23rd. It is also currently available on Video On Demand.

It was 2009 before director Tony Kaye came to make a follow-up to his 1998 feature film debut American History X; the studio-produced cut of that film so upset him that he demanded, unsuccessfully, that his name be pulled from the credits. The result was Black Water Transit, still caught up in the editing process and unreleased three years later. It’s perhaps miraculous, this considered, that Detachment has seen the light of day at all. Set in the world of public high-school education, it spans the month-long term of substitute teacher Henry Barthes at an institution characterised by disinterested students and apathetic educators. Carrying the burdens of a difficult life of his own, he divides his time between visiting his senile grandfather, teaching his disaffected students, and trying to somehow help a young prostitute who seems lost to the world.

His face hosts a deep wearisomeness and fatigue beyond his years, his voice the laconic reservation of a man scarred by a troubled existence. The film hinges on this character, and in Brody’s every movement and expression he has our attention and sympathy.

That Adrien Brody is a talented actor is common knowledge: as if being the youngest winner of the Best Actor Oscar in the Academy’s history were not proof enough, he reminded us just last year of his brilliant versatility by stealing every scene he was in as Salvador Dalí in Midnight in Paris. It should be no surprise to find any performance of his graceful and powerful, yet Detachment sees him outshining even the loftiest of expectations, his turn as Henry one of the most searing and perfectly realised embodiments of a scripted character to arrive in some time. His face hosts a deep wearisomeness and fatigue beyond his years, his voice the laconic reservation of a man scarred by a troubled existence. The film hinges on this character, and in Brody’s every movement and expression he has our attention and sympathy. Though he never once needs it, the rest of the cast offers phenomenal support, each of their characters people we yearn to know more about. Movies with an ensemble cast of so many recognisable faces have a tendency to sprawl uncontrollably, giving half-portraits of everyone and exploring nobody in depth. It’s one of Detachment’s finest achievements that its wide network of characters is, by the end, a host of people we feel we know. Both Bryan Cranston and William Petersen are disappointingly underused, but Kaye never gives them the screen time that should have us expecting otherwise; they are clearly set as part of the background, “other people” meant only to flesh out the lives of the secondary characters they pertain to. In Lucy Liu and Marcia Gay Harden lie characters around whom whole other films might easily be structured; this is an incredible assembly of talent, not forgetting the first-timer Sami Gayle as the prostitute and the gut-wrenching Betty Kaye as a student as lost in life as Henry himself.

Despite its setting, Detachment is not, as a number of reviewers have seen fit to claim, a film about the American education system. It uses its high-school as a microcosm of society and human civilisation; a manageable miniature expression of our race through which Kaye explores the themes that touch us all. From a distinctly melancholy introduction flooded in the mournfully pensive score that runs throughout, the film maintains a tone of distinct bitterness toward life. The motif of death abounds, be it in Henry’s assigned essay to his new students or the passing of a former teacher. Kaye frames his characters against fences and closed storefronts, placing them in a visual prison that manifests their isolation in the world and the entrapment of their lives. Erica asks Henry at one point why he is involving himself with her; it seems all he does is surround himself with broken people to mask the issues of his own life. Carl Lund’s script shows a profound understanding of the human condition, but it is in Kaye’s direction that these ideas find powerful expression. His film is an assault on the emotions, intensely and unrelentingly confronting its audience with the truth of life and its harshness. It’s a story open to any number of clichéd outcomes—it even teasingly suggests these in employing stock characters like the hooker with a heart of gold and stereotypical high-school cliques—easy outcomes it rejects to instead focus upon the brutal pain of being. Detachment takes the tough route in its execution, and its reward is a brilliant but vicious realism that speaks to that aspect of humanity we so often try to hide from ourselves.

Carl Lund’s script shows a profound understanding of the human condition, but it is in Kaye’s direction that these ideas find powerful expression. His film is an assault on the emotions, intensely and unrelentingly confronting its audience with the truth of life and its harshness.

Not since perhaps Synecdoche New York have I experienced a film so committed to conveying a cynical outlook on life. Kaye never ceases increasing the morbidity of Detachment, but he does this with a fundamental honesty, evidently desiring to describe the universality of dark feelings and the weight of living in a senseless world rather than simply relishing in tonal oblivion for the sake of it alone. “Most of the teachers here,” intones Henry in the film’s first minutes, “at one point, they believed that they could make a difference”. He and his colleagues genuinely yearn to impart better prospects to their students, yet each of them knows that nobody in life is ever really happy, that they themselves have failed to make anything of their lives. These characters are manifestations of each of us, setting grand aspirations and goals for ourselves that, our mortality and the brevity of existence considered, are just slightly longer distractions from the inevitable end. It’s difficult to watch because it’s so undeniable and so appreciable to all. Kaye infuses several points of pleasantry throughout, but the dominant sense contributed by the languorous music and the excellent Eisensteinian editing is that life is rarely satisfactory, and only for brief moments when it is. It makes Detachment a heavy film almost guaranteed to wear you down to a trembling mess, but there’s something brilliant in being shown so unashamedly the universal pain of the human condition and the burden of never quite being what you wish in life.

Films like Detachment are always described as depressing. They show worlds of pain and despair, hopelessness and desperation, the great emptiness of existence we all try not to think about. It may hurt, but they show us life as it really is, stripping back the layers of pretence to present the true experience of being. To my mind that’s not depressing: it’s enlightening, enlivening, uplifting even. It shows us that the darkness of life surrounds us all, that everyone can feel lost and alone in the senselessness of the world. But we go on anyway, we carry on, we find a way to deal and look beyond the blackness to the small moments of joy. Or we don’t. At one point Henry opines that literature empowers us to look beyond the vision of life we’re told to have, to form our own opinions and our own feelings about existence, to give us something to cling to in a world of madness and existential malaise. Cinema fulfils that role in my life, and Detachment enriched my experience of being on this earth. It’s a thing of beauty; I can’t remember the last time something made me feel so far from depression.

[notification type=”star”]92/100 ~ AMAZING. Detachment is a heavy film almost guaranteed to wear you down to a trembling mess, but there’s something brilliant in being shown so unashamedly the universal pain of the human condition and the burden of never quite being what you wish in life.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.