Tony Kaye's long-awaited return is every bit as troubled as the characters it portrays.
In Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye’s 2006 abortion documentary, the British director brought a fierce intelligence to a politically sensitive subject. With Detachment, he’s attempted to repeat the trick, this time in the fictional framework of America’s failing public school system.
Adrien Brody gives a typically lugubrious performance as substitute teacher Henry Barthes. Drafted into an embattled school, he is embroiled in the long, slow retreat of teaching standards. It’s a situation made worse by economic crisis, political interference and classrooms of kids who have learned to give up on themselves before society does.
Kaye has employed every visual embellishment he can think of to bring this world to life. Violent chalkboard animations, abstract dream sequences and documentary cut-aways all punctuate the narrative, while dialogue scenes are pointedly framed and self-consciously edited.
These devices aren’t to be confused with ideas, however. There’s very little room for those in a film that rejects nuance for a series of worst-case-scenario scare stories. While Kaye’s instincts as a director have always been provocative, here they fail him. His intention isn’t to analyse the systemic failings of US schools; it’s to batter the audience into submission. But there’sonlysomuchmiserythatcanbeshoved down your throat before you choke.
And for all that Detachment affects the air of an art film, it’s beholden to the most toxic clichés of the genre: the aggressive kid transformed by ‘sir’; the staff as fucked-up as their pupils; the teary breakdowns and tenuous redemptions. And all of it rendered with an ad man’s eye for style. In one particularly egregious scene, Kaye shoots a young girl’s suicide with all the cold beauty and emotional absence of a car commercial.
With Carl Lund’s script lifting liberally from the Dawson’s Creek school of sixth-form psychology, the film’s flaws overshadow decent performances from Brody and Sami Gayle that briefly threaten to rescue it. Pixie-featured, tough but brittle, Gayle in particular makes a convincingly vulnerable young woman whose fate provides Detachment with its one authentic grace note.
After the development hell of Black Water Transit, it’s good to have Tony Kaye back in cinemas.
A film every bit as troubled as the characters it portrays.
It’s a vaguely elegant brute of a film, but a long way from Kaye’s best.