By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
Director Tony Kaye burst onto the scene in 1998 with American History X, a stylized, brutal, but earnest work that ended up being one of my favorite films of the decade. Along with the accolades, though, came a reputation as an eccentric, domineering filmmaker destined to butt heads with actors, producers, and studios. Unless you’re Stanley Kubrick, this is not a formula for a long, productive career, and has translated to only one feature release for Kaye since then, the searing abortion documentary Lake of Fire.
When you have as much pimpin’ sense as Kubrick, you can make your own rules
Kay finally returned to theaters this year with Detachment, which follows a common theme of his work by examining a social issue in as uncompromising of a fashion as possible. The target this time is the U.S. school system. Adrian Brody plays a substitute teacher who gets called into one of the toughest schools in the district, where the students have the teachers against the wall and at their wit’s end.
Adrian Brody, Christina Hendricks, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Tim Blake Nelson, Isaiah Whitlock… see any names you like there? The cast is ridiculously stacked, and each delivers a good to excellent performance. The standout, though, is Brody, who sinks his teeth into the role of a troubled teacher who refuses to give up on his kids like so many have before. His acting is particularly gratifying after the last several years trying to turn into an action star or something.
I guess anybody would feel like a badass next to Topher Grace
The Tony Kaye touch is all over this movie, as he uses a blend of flashy cuts, extreme close-ups, stop animation blackboard animation, and documentary film techniques to create a distinct and beautiful style. His approach to the material is the same one a toddler would have in a Boeing cockpit- push all the buttons- and the film is strongest when he keeps this up. Brody’s, and our, introduction to the school is aggressive and harrowing, as the divide between the angry, apathetic students, and their exasperated teachers widens into a series of confrontations you can’t tear your eyes away from.
And then the rest of the film happens. The story turns to clichés as Kaye’s grasp of what an even hypothetical inner city school looks like falters. The film begins to turn on Brody’s relationship with a sensitive, artistic social outcast (played by Kaye’s own daughter) and a whore with a heart of gold character he meets on a city bus. He uses these devices to sidestep what would have been a far more interesting plot- an unvarnished look at how a man like Brody’s character really could make a difference in that toxic environment, or fail in the attempt.
Basically, but with more rape threats
That teenage whore subplot sure goes nowhere. The strange, fatherly relationship that forms when Brody decides to let her stay at his place and does what he can to help her has its moments of sweetness, but it all felt incredibly tacked on and beside the point.
The script could also use one more go-over, as too much of the dialogue came off stilted or unnatural despite the best efforts of the cast. There was an obvious desire to layer in a more poetic sensibility, but it just did not jibe with the attempted realism.
Detachment is ultimately let down by its script and over-earnest directing, but there are enough genuinely impressive moments and great performances to make it worth your while.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever a student is verbally or physically abusive
Take a Drink: every time Brody’s childhood is referenced
Drink a Shot: every time No Child Left Behind is mentioned