As one of the less prolific filmmakers of his generation, Tony Kaye has admirably stayed well under the radar following his breakout feature-length debut American History X. With Detachment, we’re graced with what can be considered the director’s first mainstream effort in a little over a decade. Focusing on substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) as he takes up a temporary position at a struggling inner-city school, the man in question does his best to lend a helping hand when needed amid an all-consuming emotional numbness that he’s carried with him almost all his life. With no one left to care for other than his ailing, dementia-stricken grandfather, Mr. Barthes does what he can to live comfortably from day to day without any semblance of meaningful companionship, of which works to his advantage and severe disadvantage as unfavorable events aplenty begin to unfold all around him.
Every year a film comes around that I take a gamble on, ordering it via an OnDemand service or the like for fear of not seeing it make its rounds on the mainstream circuit. Given my immediate propensity toward viewing Detachment following the debut of its admittedly gripping trailer, I can assure you that my $10 were well spent. Standing tall as an often gritty, searing character study and unflinching look at the harsh realities coinciding with inner-city children and their long-suffering educational institutions, Detachment examines the life of the titular Mr. Barthes as his crippling emotional vacuousness allows him to form uneasy bonds with his students in a way his peers simply can’t, as they’re simply unable to mimic the numbness that accounts for their new colleague’s mysteriously cool resolve.
We’re offered a glimpse into the lives of the school’s varying faculty, from a struggling, soon-to-be-fired superintendent and a guidance counselor on the verge of a total meltdown to those who self-medicate just to get through the day, the revealing, startlingly authentic look at the struggles these individuals have to deal with paints a perfect picture of the predicament Brody’s character is constantly grappling with. With each encounter Mr. Barthes has with the misguided youth (quite literally) running rampant throughout this seedy environment, his earnest efforts to point them in the right direction always manage to backfire, further reinforcing the darker aspects of his troubled existence to an alarming degree as painful memories resurface and his grandfather’s dwindling health only adds insult to injury. Needless to say, Detachment is relentlessly steadfast in its very sullen narrative trajectory, ensuring us that each potentially heartfelt moment is almost immediately canceled out by something that’s just plain distressing and sometimes hard to watch, commenting on the unfortunate, rather bleak realities of the human condition regarding America’s troubled youth.
Technical proficiency aside, Adrien Brody’s performance as Henry Barthes is, no exaggerating, the best he’s put forth since his Oscar-winning effort in Polanski’s The Pianist. Brody so perfectly captures every toxic nuance of his character’s infinite inner turmoil that he remains completely believable throughout each and every scene, helping the film’s more uncomfortable moments carry with them an exceptional wallop; a characteristic that may or may not appeal to those looking for something a bit more uplifting. The efforts of the bulk of Detachment‘s ensemble cast are beyond noteworthy as well, of which admirably consists of heavy-hitters including James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner and even Bryan Cranston in small yet undeniably gripping supporting turns that aptly illustrate the hardships such a hellhole springs upon these individuals on a daily basis.
All in all, Tony Kaye’s latest is both an appealingly bleak character study and equally distressing examination of an inner-city school’s crippling downfall in relation to an emotionally numb substitute teacher’s inability to overcome his past demons. The less-than-prolific auteur’s remarkable direction remains the high point of this poignant, often depressing yet authentic look at such a damaged individual, exuding moments of sheer hopelessness as Brody’s Mr. Barthes instinctively distances himself from everyone as mild outbursts illustrate the frustration coinciding with his condition. For those of you looking for something more upbeat, I highly suggest you look elsewhere, as this artfully constructed and assuredly understated drama certainly doesn’t opt for the easy way out in relation to its central character’s salvation and hard-hitting commentary on the true, unflinching nature of humanity and our nation’s education system as a whole.