Friday, March 23, 2012

Detachment (2012)

Dir. Tony Kaye

3 out of 5

"That bag doesn't have any feelings that you can hurt," shrugs Mr. Barthes (Adrien Brody) when an angry pupil hurls it across his classroom, then adds pointedly, "And neither do I." Thus the inspirational teacher archetype is turned on its ear in
Detachment, a film about a substitute in a hellish New York public high school with a solitary personal rule: caring is creepy. Unlike fellow faculty members who either try to confront the madness with a pretense of authority or willingly participate in its absurdity, Brody is merely a blank slate. He freely absorbs the physical and psychological torment of his students but doesn't seem too interested in discipline. He doesn't even require that they attend class. For Brody, mentoring is an unemotional pursuit, less of a calling than a penance. His ethical code is more like an unfortunate predisposition than a moral philosophy: by the middle of the film he's a one-man social services bureau, sheltering a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle) while tending to his grandfather (Louis Zorich), an invalid in the advanced stages of dementia.

That's a lot to take in, and the audience is lucky to have Brody as a receptacle for all the punishment that director Tony Kaye (American History X) can dish out. There's also an attempt to create some formal distance in the film's flashy editing and its kitchen-sink approach to casting. The success of the latter is spotty at best. On the positive side of the ledger is James Caan's wisecracking disciplinarian, a veteran of the trenches who is just as crude and sarcastic as his charges. But the film's abundance of meandering subplots means that several fine actors get the short shrift. Consider Tim Blake Nelson, whose enigmatic sad sack is an Andy Samberg impression waiting to happen, and William Petersen, who is prominently billed in the credits but hardly says a word in the film. The supporting cast overcompensates for Brody's grim, understated performance with histrionics; the silver lining is that it's a pretty effective way to turn a reticent journeyman with a mysterious background into a de-facto hero.

Detachment is not just a film without any easy solutions - it's a film where solutions are barely even thought of. This sort of ambivalence is vital and unique and inevitably exhausting. The movie is at least consistent in demystifying the sacred sphere of education. Kaye is capable of creating some potent, if obvious, visual metaphors for the failure of the system, like a series of ransacked hallways and classrooms strewn with dead leaves and other refuse. But a prologue featuring real teachers discussing their own motivations and challenges hardly seems to fit, especially as it segues into a recurring set-up where Brody's character pontificates to an unseen documentary crew. The film's display of only the most terrible human behavior is also somewhat disingenuous, but it challenges us to disassociate from the tragedy occurring onscreen. Detachment is ultimately a flawed, fascinating paradox - a cautionary tale of isolation delivered with a heaping dose of alienation.

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