Detachment Review

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Score

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.

Anticipation

After the development hell of Black Water Transit, it’s good to have Tony Kaye back in cinemas.

3

Enjoyment

A film every bit as troubled as the characters it portrays.

2

In Retrospect

It’s a vaguely elegant brute of a film, but a long way from Kaye’s best.

2
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View 11 comments

natalie

1 year ago
I really wanted to like this film, but found the music video camera work intrusive, almost at odds with the story, upstaging it at every turn. The script deserved a more lucid and nuanced interpretation. I found the Brody direct address improvisation moments childish and pointless. Cutting the actors out to make room for his gibberish was a bad call. It's also difficult to engage the film when the longest scene is a minute and thirty seconds with wall to wall music.

To Anton's odd "reasonably generous comment" -- Tony's assertion of 'one man one film' points to the petulant narcissism that defines him as a person and his career in film, or lack there of. No one man or woman makes a film, yet as Bryan Cranston wonderfully stated in his interview, the story is everything.

Matt Bochenski

1 year ago
In fairness to Carl Lund, looks like I might owe him an apology if Bryan Cranston is right about Kaye's approach to the his script...
http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/motion-captured/posts...

Tom

1 year ago
"Kaye shoots a young girl’s suicide with all the cold beauty and emotional absence of a car commercial."

The actress is his daughter as well...

Anton Bitel

1 year ago
...AND the film is, as its title suggests, concerned precisely with 'emotional absence.' Kaye's detached filmmaking style is very much a part of the package.

Matt Bochenski

1 year ago
I see what you're saying, but elsewhere it isn't detached. It's a whirlwind of half-formed ideas and devices, all emotional manipulation and shock tactics. That's what I think the suicide is, just poorly realised.

Anton Bitel

1 year ago
(Sort of) exactly - a whirlwind of alienation effects and ensemble plotting, apparently reeling viewers in but offering nothing with which it is easy to connect (and briskly changing the subject whenever there is a risk of connection). To me, all this was a vivid audio-visual analogue to the protagonist's dissociative retreat. There's lots going on, but it is all presented in such a way that it induces a strange distance in viewers, challenging us to get closer to the meat of the matter even as its protagonist embraces emptiness. I loved this film!

April Cortez

1 year ago
Interesting link to the Cranston interview. Thanks for sharing. I read an interview with Tony Kaye on indie wire talking about how he and Brody improvised all the fourth wall break interviews, which makes sense. Brody in those scenes doesn't look like the character of Henry and doesn't talk like his character. I also get the feeling mr. Lund's script was treated badly. Detachment appears to have been written to be an ensemble film like Network or the Hospital, but got cut up, re-edited around Brody and given superfluous things like the interviews, flashbacks and animation sequences in post production.

Neville

1 year ago
Insight take, April. Check out the comment page over at The Guardian review of Detachment. Tony goes off on somebody who posted the same Cranston interview.

neville

1 year ago
My bad. His rant is on the comment pages of the What Culture review by Shaun Munro.

Anton Bitel

1 year ago
The whole history of cinema is littered with directors who deviate from their received scripts during production, and who decide to leave some scenes on the cutting room floor in post-production. These are hardly unorthodox practises in filmmaking, and certainly can yield good, even better results (although of course don't always).

Tony Kaye's comment following the What Culture review (http://whatculture.com/film/detachment-review-rewarding-hard-hitting-school-drama.php) is good-humoured, reasonably generous towards people who have criticised him in public, and ends with the words 'Peace and love'. No matter what else you might make of Kaye's comment, it hardly qualifies as a 'rant' (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/rant) or as 'going off on someone'.

Anton Bitel

1 year ago
What some might see as Tony Kaye's 'petulant narcissism' is in fact just an assertion of auteur theory. Now, the theory has its detractors - but he is hardly alone in subscribing to it. Of course filmmaking is a collaborative process - but it is the director (generally) who calls the shots and has final say about the overall vision. And while story may indeed be everything, story in film does not come from and end with the screenplay alone - otherwise, you could just publish the screenplay and not bother making films.

By "reasonably generous comment" I meant this: "It was a great script Carl wrote, but the film is my vision. Bryan’s scenes were amazing, but had to be cut out to make more room for Adrien. My decision." He is not criticising their contributions - on the contrary, he is complimenting them, but at the same time taking responsibility for the film that he, rather than they, directed. If you don't like the film - and clearly you didn't - then you can and should blame Kaye for his vision (or lack thereof); but I really did like the film, and did like the way the so-called 'music video camera work' induced a sense of distance, or detachment, in the viewer, so personally I'm grateful for the decisions that he took. But I don't wish to monopolise, or to become repetitive, so this will be my last comment. Er, peace and love.
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