Detachment is one of those obscure video releases that pique one's curiosity. Here's a movie by Tony Kaye—who directed American History X (1998) and the landmark abortion documentary Lake of Fire (2006)—with a cast that includes Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Cranston, William Petersen, Tim Blake Nelson, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, and James Caan. But according to Box Office Mojo, Detachment played on no more than 15 screens when it was released this spring, and it never arrived in Chicago at all. With a roster of talent like that, what went wrong?
Well, plenty. To Kaye's credit, he tackles a vast and seemingly irresolvable problem: the crisis in America's schools, which has begun to generate both dramas (Won't Back Down) and documentaries (The Cartel, Waiting for "Superman"). But his treatment of the subject verges on hysteria. "Hey, jackass! I axed you a fuckin' question!" shouts one student in a do-rag before marching up to the front of class, getting in the teacher's face, and hurling his leather satchel against the wall. In the front office, a mother bursts in with her daughter, spots the girl's teacher (Hendricks), and gets in her face. "You the bitch that expelled my baby?" she screams as her daughter crosses her arms smugly. "And for what! Because you can't handle her! Bitch, why are you here? You wanna be home with her every day? I don't have time for this bullshit! Racist bitch! Ah'mo sue yo' ass!" A flashback to the offending incident shows the daughter getting in the teacher's face: "Bitch, you give me any more shit in class and I'm gonna have my niggas fuckin' gang-rape yo' ass!"
I don't doubt that incidents like this occur in public schools every day, but I'll stick my neck out and say I doubt they all happen in one school on the same day, before second period. Kaye got his start doing commercials and music videos, so he's accustomed to rubbing your nose in every point. Back in the day of so-called classical Hollywood filmmaking, close-ups were reserved for big moments so they would have the maximum emotional impact, and medium shots established characters' relationships with each other. Detachment is cluttered with close-ups, one after another, to the point where you feel as if you're constantly being backed into a corner.
At the center of all this chaos is Henry Barthes (Brody), a substitute teacher who makes a practice of never staying at any school long enough to connect emotionally with the students. "That bag?" he explains to the do-rag student. "It's empty. It doesn't have any feelings. I don't have any feelings you can hurt either." In case we've missed the point, Barthes lives in an apartment with bare walls and only the most rudimentary furniture. But for all the movie's this-is-where-it's-at aggression, Barthes is a fairly trite character, the walking dead man haunted by a past trauma. The nature of his wound is hinted at throughout the movie, but when Kaye finally reveals it near the end, it turns out to be almost standard-issue. Brody manages to redeem the character with a sharp and sensitive performance, but American movies have been littered with guys like this at least since The Pawnbroker (1965).
Marcia Gay Harden
The movie's soggy center is a real shame because the peripheral cast is so good, particularly Marcia Gay Harden, Tim Blake Nelson, Lucy Liu, and James Caan as longtime educators in various states of bitterness and disillusion. They all have great scenes, which makes you wonder whether each of them signed for the movie on the basis of a few script pages and the director's reputation. If you're the least bit curious about Kaye, check out Lake of Fire (viewable below in its entirety), an extraordinary documentary that manages to respect and represent all sides of the abortion issue. When I compare that movie to this one, it only reinforces my sense that dramatic filmmaking in America, no matter how well intentioned, has grown inadequate to the times we live in.