The Under-Appreciated ‘Detachment’s’ Lesson In Human Misery
As the three adult women who sat next to me giggled their way through each emotionally savaging scene, my question of why “Detachment” took such a long time to reach our shores was answered.
A film with ravaging honesty that transcends even the most “real” of stories, director Tony Kaye’s cinematic tour de force looks at the frail relationships between humans as seen through the lens of a substitute teacher, played with unwavering sorrowful conviction by Adrien Brody.
Showing only in Blitzmegaplex theaters, this is the kind of film that speaks volumes, though here it has the commercial viability of an empty popcorn bag found under the seat during a screening of “The Avengers.”
But it needs to be seen. As one of the many who suffered through Indonesia’s feeble education system, I witnessed “detached” teachers who spoke as if in tongues, complete oblivious to rudimentary child/teen/human psychology, or they were simply and immeasurably apathetic (as the giggling women were).
The film’s bleak outlook never — unfortunately — felt distant. It isn’t a redundant reiteration of how a “system” of proxies and broken bureaucracies fails its many students, but a thoroughly humane and universal expose of it.
Focusing on substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Brody), whose preference for short-term teaching jobs suggests a fear of attaching himself emotionally to students, but whose inherent goodness and inner demons see him do so anyway, “Detachment” examines everything from parental disconnect, child abuse and teen prostitution to the commercialism of the American education system.
It plays mostly through the eyes of broken teachers eager to help similarly broken students as they arrive at the understanding that many of their apprentices are already beyond repair.
It is, to be sure, the unwavering depressing outlook that cost “Detachment” some points with many film critics. Mary Pols wrote for Time that “the movie seems so excited about rubbing the audience’s face in misery as to feel perverted,” while a review in Empire decided that the film was “too pretentiously depressing for its own good.”
Those points are valid in their own right. Kaye’s stylistic approach holds a peculiarity that can indeed be construed as pretentious.
“Detachment” features a scene in which Brody speaks directly to the screen as in some faux documentary, and chalkboard animations that act as hyperbolic visual depictions of each scene feature objects such as guillotines, nooses and various murderous acts.
But, for me, instead of hindering the momentum of the movie, Kaye’s aesthetic choices helped blow up each emotional moment into an unforgettable one. This is a director that wants the audience to leave the theater with a driving pessimism that bears actual results; a desperate plea that throws everything at the audience with its skinny fists clenched in fraught prayer.
The top-notch cast includes Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks and Lucy Liu as the school’s various educators. Their respective issues and traits feel purposefully one-dimensional, acting as stand-ins for real people and the variable concerns and coping mechanisms we are all familiar with. Sami Gayle, playing an underage prostitute that Brody’s character takes under his wing, is the only misstep here character-wise; her affections for Brody’s character feel underplayed and rushed.
“Detachment” is bleak, there’s no getting around it. But it feels purposefully so. Designed to make the audience uncomfortable, it is 100 minutes of utter cynicism that hopes its viewers will yearn for some bright spot, a whimpering shaft of light that they seek it out themselves once they leave the theaters.