[Review] – Detachment

12 Apr

Title: Detachment
Year: 2012
Director: Tony Kaye
Writer: Carl Lund
Starring: Adrien Brody, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Tim Blake Nelson, Bryan Cranston, Sami Gayle, William Petersen, Blythe Danner
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 100 min
IMDb Rating: 7.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 54%
Metacritic: 53

Tony Kaye is the man that made his directorial debut with American History X back in 1998, which is a film I’m a huge fan of, providing just immensely compelling storytelling, anchored by a pretty masterful performance from Edward Norton. After such a hugely provocative debut, Mr. Kaye took his time to deliver a follow-up, eight years to be exact, and when he did it was with a documentary, Lake of Fire, which was another very powerful effort from the director, this time taking a riveting look at abortion in the United States.

His feature film comeback was set to be Black Water Transit, a crime noir set in post-Katrina New Orleans, starring Laurence Fishburne and Karl Urban. But that film got trapped in a series of legal issues, and I’d reckon that it won’t live to see the light of day. So now, finally, fourteen years after American History X, we can finally get to see Tony Kaye’s “sophomore” feature film effort, the very interesting Detachment. And while I think Mr. Kaye is indeed trying to say some interesting stuff here, and his and his cast hearts are certainly in the right places, this film didn’t pull it off entirely for me. It came close when it was at its most compelling, but there was just something lacking for me at the end.

The film takes a look at the high school educational system, centering on Adrien Brody‘s Henry Barthes, one of those teachers who really loves to educate, to create a connection with his students and have an actual impact on their lives. But he prefers not to be dependent on those relationships, so he works as a substitute teacher, moving from school to school with the necessary frequency so that he doesn’t form emotional connections to any of his students or colleagues. He’s trying to shield himself away from the horrors of the public education system, because Mr. Kaye really does make it seem like a kind of hell, until he gets a new school assigned to him that forces him to connect more than he’d like to.

Mr. Brody is stellar as Henry, taking on a very demanding role and nailing it every step of the way. He’s joined by an ensemble full of very talented performers that play the rest of school’s faculty, including James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden and Christina Hendricks. These are all pretty terrific actors, and even though there being too many of them means that these supporting characters don’t get to be properly developed, having actors that can do so much with so little screen time means we do get some pretty rousing scenes from them. And every single person in this school, Henry, his fellow colleagues, the students he teachers, are just so full of personal demons that can’t be properly excised in the environment they’re in.

Tony Kaye is a damn talented man, that much is very obvious when you watch Detachment. You hear about some of his antics, like when he sued the studio for and the DGA for millions for not letting him change his name to “Humpty Dumpty” in the American History X credits, or when he publicly called himself “the greatest English director since Hitchcock”, and you think he’s probably a bit crazy. But he’s also crazy good, even when you take into account all the faults of Detachment, it’s hard to miss that there’s a pretty talented man at work here.

Mr. Kaye assembles a lot of pretty horrible situations to happen to the ensemble of characters here, all pretty harrowing scenes coming at you one after the other, and it gets to you. But then again it’s impossible for this not to get to you, it kind of makes you feel something because it’s so hard-hitting, because it’s so excessive. And Mr. Kaye is obviously the kind of hugely opinionated individual that he’ll no doubt go for this kind of excess before having anyone take his movie away and trim it all nicely for him. Part of his excesses are him showing us his bag of tricks, not only giving us these very intense sequences not caring about the onslaught of feelings he’s throwing at us, but also using documentary-style interviews with the teachers and animation bits, trying to get a bit more power to his very passionate ranting.

I’m mixed, because of this, on Detachment. It’s provocative, for sure, and it knows exactly where to hit to get the biggest reactions it can. But there are times where it feels a bit cheap, if I’m to be honest; it feels all massive because Mr. Kaye accompanies these things with flashy literary quotes which grab you even further by the throat, but it’s just too much and it doesn’t feel genuine. It gets close to really, really working because of Mr. Brody, who’s superb as he plays this guy who visits his grandfather ailing from dementia at the hospital, who lost his alcoholic mother to suicide and who offers a helping hand to a teen prostitute. He’s great, but it’s just too much surrounding him. So yes, I’m mixed, I liked what it was trying to do, I liked the people doing it, I appreciate Tony Kaye as a director quite a bit; but I thought it ultimately placed its good intentions in the wrong places, and it used an overbearing series of things to try and make it happen.

Grade: B-

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One Response to “[Review] – Detachment”

  1. colincarman April 16, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    This was the equivalent of being hit over the head with a frying pan: unsubtle and over-the-top, me thinks! Nice review.

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