Published on December 8th, 2013 | by Sean Warhurst
Detachment DVD Review
Summary: Detachment is an engrossing meditation on the trajectory society is taking in regards to our school systems, the responsibility and blame being placed upon them for what are, in reality, the community’s failings and the faint glimmer of salvation that exists if certain changes are made.
Reviewer: Sean Warhurst
Running Time: 94 Minutes
A scathing indictment of the educational system, Detachment highlights the detrimental effects on our society due to prevalent apathy, not just from the students but from the community as a whole. Illustrating the pitfalls of performing a job where the onus of individual achievement is placed squarely upon your shoulders, the characters introduced in the film are jaded and withdrawn, running from some aspect of their lives whilst trying to keep their heads above water; in their daily lives they’re forced to maintain a facade of professionalism even as, for some, the mask becomes too heavy to bear.
The latest feature from Tony Kaye, director of American History X, Detachment is an oftentimes difficult film to watch, with heavy thematic dissections of not just the American educational system but ALL educational institutions and the failings inherent in placing the responsibility of your child’s education on a stranger whilst neglecting to accept any yourself. The parents in this film aren’t demonised as one would expect, merely shown to quickly dispense blame upon all others but themselves, with a telling scene on the school’s parent/ Teacher night clearly illustrating the disconnect between the institution and the parents of its students.
Detachment follows the story of Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), a substitute teacher who makes a living taking on long-term assignments at different schools. Henry seems to be in the middle of an existential crisis as he does his best to remain disconnected from the world around him, taking umbrage at being called in to assist his ailing grandfather but showing very few other emotions. It transpires that Henry has a sordid past where some of the things he witnessed irrevocably scarred him, creating what he deems to be an empty vessel.
Called in to take on a month long assignment at an inner city school due to the previous teacher finally snapping and calling it quits, Henry is soon faced with the grim reality of being a high school teacher – A talented young artist is bullied due to her appearance, a school counsellor is at the end of her rope with watching students sabotage their own future, a student takes a hammer to a cat under the watchful eyes of his classmates and an embittered principal is facing the chopping block due to the under-performance of her students.
Faced with his own class of recalcitrant pupils, Henry soon sets about establishing his authority but outside of the classroom it’s a different story; a stranger amongst the teachers, he witnesses their different ways of coping with the feeling of being set adrift in life – One teacher stares blankly into the distance, gripping a chain link fence with white knuckles with an anguished expression, secure in the belief that nobody can see him, whilst another freely pops pills in order to curtail the rage he feels about his own perceived inadequacy in making a difference in the lives of the children. Some, however, just seek a human connection, something to keep them tethered.
Whilst travelling home Henry witnesses a young prostitute pleasuring an older man who then proceeds to beat her rather than pay up; another chance encounter later and Henry takes the young girl, Erica, under his wing, forming a bond that causes him to question the ramifications of intentionally detaching oneself from life and allowing him the freedom to perform a charitable act by taking direct action to enrich someone’s life, a position which, by the nature of his profession, he’s unable to take to that extent at the school.
The subject matter of Detachment is certainly pertinent and it effectively illustrates the trials and tribulations faced by an educator in today’s society. That’s not to say that the teachers are presented as paragons of virtues; they’re all very flawed, very human creatures who suffer for their dedication to their profession, and that’s an aspect of their character that is often overlooked – That behind the blackboard (Or computer screen, as the case is today) there stands a very real person with very real dreams, very real feelings and very real personal demons to contend with.
Carl Lund’s screenplay is almost pitch perfect, steeped in metaphor but remaining grounded. There are a few missteps, such as Henry’s relationship with Erica facing the risk of being perceived as cliché, however, personally, I felt that this was the heart of the film as it presented a nice analogue to Henry’s inability to really help many of the students at the school.
The cast features Lucy Liu, Bryan Cranston (Unfortunately not playing a chemistry teacher), Marcia Gay Harden and James Caan and they all make the most out of what screen time they have, which in some cases isn’t all that much at all, but the weight on the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Brody and Sami Gayle, who plays Erica, and both pull off their roles with aplomb, holding the film together.
Kaye’s direction may be criticised as pretentious, with loosely framed shots, animated chalkboard sequences, instances of Brody apparently breaking the fourth wall and just the overall artsy design choices, but I found the handheld style added a sense of immediacy to the proceedings, dropping us into this world populated by lost souls whilst still retaining the sensation of being an outside observer. The structure of the film isn’t traditional by any means but it never falters in creating a coherent thread that is easy to follow throughout, and the gritty cinematography heightens the grim despondency of the subject matter.
Hopscotch has handled the transfer for Detachment admirably, with no major complaints in either the audio or visual departments and perfectly capturing the washed out tones of Kaye’s opus.
Unfortunately there are no supplemental features included upon this release.
Detachment is an affecting movie that has a tangible emotional resonance, particularly for those involved in the educational system. The themes presented are universal and presented without compromise; Kaye’s direction may be a sticking point for some, and I can understand that to a degree, but on a personal level I quite like films that stray from the structural and visual norm and I feel that these design choices encapsulated the themes of the film nicely. A character driven drama piece with such a bleak outlook may not be everyone’s cup of tea but if it’s your thing, Detachment is an engrossing meditation on the trajectory society is taking in regards to our school systems, the responsibility and blame being placed upon them for what are, in reality, the community’s failings and the faint glimmer of salvation that exists if certain changes are made.