Detachment, the new film from American History X director Tony Kaye, is about despair and all its synonyms. To say it’s a downer is a vast understatement, but it also has a valid and interesting point to make, and isn’t afraid to stand up on its soapbox and shout it at you. The film sees Adrien Brody’s sensitive yet troubled substitute teacher arrive at Queens High, where both the students and teachers are in need of some serious guidance and support. With a drama set amidst slightly pretentious talking head asides and crudely animated stories, poems and passages, we follow Henry Barthes’ short stay at the school.
But his problems start at home, with his grandfather slowly dying in a care facility, dark secrets left murky and uncovered from his childhood, and a teenage hooker recovering in his apartment. It’s a scattergun approach to eliciting misery, but Henry is painted as a guy desperate to help people, while avoiding his own complex and mutating issues all the while. The hooker in question is discovered on a bus ride home from the hospital and, without much thought, he takes her into his home and patches her up. Her actual age is left ambiguous, and the relationship is a platonic, familial one, but we’re led to believe that she is the same age as his students. He is clearly terrified of crossing the line.
Brody’s performance is pretty astonishing throughout, and carries the film through most of its rough patches. Henry is a man who appears calm and collected on the outside, putting everyone around him instantly at ease, but his dark secrets and a violent self-hatred are always bubbling just below the surface. As the title suggests, he paints himself as some sort of detached figure, gliding through life ‘one day at a time’, but when his easy, controlled, existence is threatened, he can’t handle it. One particular student, Meredith, forms an attachment to Henry that poses such a threat that when another teacher walks in on them together, accusing him of ‘touching’ her, he can barely contain his outrage.
But the gloom isn’t reserved for just one character. No, the whole school, country and human race are indited in the themes that the film is trying to put across. The clues scattered throughout, and the message we’re left with at the end, is about the problems within the American school system, and the uninterested parents who produce such miserable offspring. At one point, Lucy Liu’s dedicated teacher reaches the end of her tether, telling a particularly loathsome underachiever what a ‘shallow, wretched creature’ she is; on another occasion Christina Hendricks is threatened with gang-rape by a female student, and a neglected husband and father begins to believe he is actually invisible. These people have effectively given upon their own sad existences.
The ideas behind Detachment sound like the worst kind of ‘inspiring teacher changes his students’ lives’ drama, but the interesting visual language that compliments its commentary side-steps some of these clichés, and universally excellent performances do the same for the broad collection of characters. It’s a film that’s equal parts enchanting and frustrating and will, if nothing else, comfort any teachers who are currently questioning their choice of vocation. By throwing everything at the audience, some of it was bound to fight its way through the chaos.