Judge Clark Douglas' high school had considerably happier PTA meetings.
A life-and-death struggle to find beauty in a seemingly vicious and loveless world.
"A child's intelligent heart can fathom the depth of many dark places, but can it fathom the delicate moment of its own detachment?"
Facts of the Case
Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody, The Darjeeling Limited) is a substitute teacher, drifting from one school to another as new assignments are handed to him. At the moment, he's working in a high school plagued with a host of seemingly insurmountable problems. The students demonstrate little ambition, the parents are almost completely uninvolved, the teachers are burnt-out, the principal (Marcia Gay Harden, The Mist) has lost all passion for her work, and the school is regarded by others as the laughing stock of the district. Will Henry be able to make a difference, or are his efforts futile?
The premise of Tony Kaye's Detachment makes it sound like every inspirational teacher movie ever made: a new teacher comes into a struggling school and tries to make a difference in the lives of his students. However, there's precious little inspiration or hope to found in Kaye's film, which at times seems like a ceaselessly cynical rebuttal to the likes of Take the Lead, Lean on Me, and Freedom Writers. It is by turns searing and silly, a movie that cranks up the melodrama to ridiculous proportions but lingers with you due to the undeniably potent moments of raw truth it contains. One would have to excuse an awful lot to call the film a masterpiece, but there's no denying that much of what Kaye offers is powerful stuff.
The film was barely given a theatrical release (grossing less than $100,000 during its minuscule run) and was largely overshadowed by stories of its troubled production. Actor Bryan Cranston (who makes a memorable, brief appearance that leads one to believe that he had quite a few scenes deleted) had some rather harsh words for Kaye, claiming that he and other actors felt that the director had dishonored the original script by ex-teacher Carl Lund. Kaye is certainly no stranger to controversy, having famously clashed with Edward Norton on American History X and fanning political flames on both sides of the aisle with his abortion-themed documentary Lake of Fire. Still, it's unfair to judge Detachment based on what happened during its production or what others felt it ultimately ought to be. The fact of the matter is that it's an effective film. How much more (or less) effective it might have been if Lund's original vision had been followed remains a mystery.
Adrien Brody's world-weary performance is one of his more graceful turns of recent years, a welcome change-of-pace after the less-than-convincing gruffness he adopted in films like The Experiment and Predators. The actor's sad eyes, tired voice and soulful demeanor contrast beautifully with the film's barely suppressed outrage (which sometimes reveals itself in the form of graphic, expressive, impressionistic animated interludes). Brody's performance thoughtfully summarizes far too many present-day teachers: good-hearted people who have slowly but surely been defeated by years of ceaseless opposition on every level.
Kaye's approach to capturing the struggles of the modern school system is awfully large and scattershot, which is one of the film's best and worst qualities. Characters are prone to bursting into inelegant speeches that blatantly spell out the film's concerns, but the actors deliver these moments with enough tenacity and conviction to make them work. A scene in which Brody rails against a culture that quietly nurtures the idea that women are garbage seems forced, but as a self-contained moment it's pretty damn forceful. Kaye flits between the students, the teachers, the leaders, the politicians, the parents and others; providing fleeting snapshots of what these suffering individuals are dealing with on a daily basis.
The supporting cast members are mostly on hand to provide quick sketches of distinctive individuals. Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is a teacher who lacks even the most basic respect from his students and seems to be suffering a mental breakdown. James Caan (The Godfather) carries an unnerving picture of an infected vagina around with him to show to female students engaging in excessive promiscuity. Lucy Liu (Charlie's Angels) is a guidance counselor who is growing increasingly weary of students spitting on the guidance she offers. Daily horrors like an aggressive male student pummeling a stray cat to death or a female student getting raped have become routine for these people.
The DVD transfer is reasonably satisfying, offering clear detail and impressive depth. The film has a muted, gritty look that adds to its dour tone—you certainly won't see much in the way of bright color or attractive imagery over the course of this downbeat flick. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track gets the job done well enough, with an emphasis being placed on dialogue. Music tends to be low-key and the minimal sound design is well-captured. Supplements include a red carpet interviews with assorted cast and crew members (filmed at the Tribeca Film Festival) and a video interview with Kaye & Brody.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are plenty of things to pick at, but I'd like to single out the relationship between Brody's character and a young prostitute (Sami Gayle, Blue Bloods) as the one thing that really drags the movie down from time to time. The storyline offers some of the sweeter material the film has to offer, but it's also rather conventional and tends to distract from the meatier things the film is getting at. If you regard Detachment as a character-driven film, it's important. However, Detachment is clearly an issue-driven film, and this thread of the movie doesn't bring much to the table in that regard.
Detachment is a messy film and occasionally an unbearably screechy one, but that messiness is part of what makes it so unnervingly effective. This isn't a exquisitely detailed examination of a system-wide breakdown ala The Wire: Season Four, but rather a furious, passionate street corner sermon being spit out by a mad-yet-righteous prophet. Do I wish that Kaye had been able to channel his rage a little more coherently? Absolutely. Do I think the film deserves to be seen regardless? Absolutely. Whatever its flaws may be, this is a movie with something to say that is well worth hearing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
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