Detachment Reviewed: American History X Director Comes Up Short

With American History X, British director Tony Kaye went for the jugular and held us firmly in his grasp. With his latest film, unfortunately he just about misses the mark.
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With American History X, British director Tony Kaye went for the jugular and held us firmly in his grasp. With his latest film, unfortunately he just about misses the mark.

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British director Tony Kaye’s return to feature film was met with anticipation, but also some trepidation given the nature of his narrative. On the surface Detachment is another classroom drama where a tormented teacher struggles to cope with his uninterested students, as seen previously in Half Nelson, Dead Poets Society and The Class. The film opens with “a Tony Kaye talkie” and leaves you wondering if the director of American History X can carry through with such an authorial sentiment and offer something unique within an already popular subgenre.

Kaye’s film, unlike the three others mentioned previously, furthers his style of studying social issues. Where his debut feature American History X tackled racism and his later documentary Lake of Fire focussed on abortion, his latest venture scrutinises America’s school systems. In his previous films the central message was conveyed clearly, but Detachment appears overly ambitious due to the large variety of issues raised. Opinions on teaching, America’s youth culture, parenting, as well as many others, are over complicated and often obscure the narrative, reducing the feel of the film to little more than a public service announcement.

This becomes a real shame for a film that, without the preachy mind set, is a fantastic character piece. A brilliant script, full of compelling dialogue is met convincingly by the whole cast, of which it boasts some real treats including James Caan, Christina Hendricks and Lucy Liu. Unlike the key themes, each character is given enough screen time to really connect with the audience. Kaye uses cutaway segments cleverly, offering brief glimpses into the teachers’ personal lives outside of the classroom.

Detachment is a thoroughly enjoyable film, but due to its convoluted narrative is often as troubled as the characters it presents.

Detachment sees Adrien Brody as Mr. Barthes, a substitute teacher who drifts from classroom to classroom in an attempt to avoid close connection to any of the students or teachers from his latest assignment. His character follows in the similar vein of Ryan Gosling’s Dan Dunne (Half Nelson) and François Bégaudeau’s François Marin (The Class); he is a typical protagonist of this subgenre - a single male teacher balancing their own issues with those of the people around them. Brody’s career has been built around the indie circuit, but after a disappointing tenure in Hollywood mainstream with Predators and Splice, he returns to better suited projects and the style of performance that rightly won him his Academy Award for The Pianist.

Brody’s protagonist is the knight in a shining white polo neck; despite being plagued by his inner demons, he begins fighting for the people around him, from the young prostitute he takes under his wing in an almost Travis Bickle nature to his old grandfather laying ill in hospital. His empathy takes many forms; on one hand he is able to show newfound respect to a loud-mouthed tough guy of the classroom while being painfully honest to the young Erica.

The emotional narrative is driven by the yearning to understand Barthes motives, particularly why he wants to detach himself from these people. We are delivered some understanding through his monologues, which Kaye often uses to establish or conclude on certain themes raised within the film. However, as mentioned earlier, this isn’t used to its fullest potential. Detachment is a thoroughly enjoyable film, but due to its convoluted narrative is often as troubled as the characters it presents.

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