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Tribeca Review: Tony Kaye's 'Detachment' Is A Fascinating Mess You Can't Look Away From

by Cory Everett
April 28, 2011 5:33 AM
8 Comments
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Though it had flown mostly under the radar, cinephiles were pretty thrilled a few weeks ago when the Tribeca Film Festival announced the addition of “Detachment” to its lineup. Not only was the cast top notch but behind the director's chair was British provocateur Tony Kaye, the filmmaker behind the controversial “American History X,” a picture made over 12 years ago. In the interim, things have been tough for the notoriously difficult director and "Detachment" is only his third feature and first narrative film since 1998. "American History X" had its own infamously troubled history when star Edward Norton essentially took over the film, edited it on his own without the director, and Kaye subsequently made a gigantic stink in Hollywood, putting ridiculous ads in Variety and eventually tried to take his name off the film and replace it with the pseudonym Humpty Dumpty. Norton would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for his performance but Kaye (following an unsuccessful attempt to sue New Line Cinema) ended up in director jail for nearly a decade.

His next film, the excellent 2 ½ hour abortion documentary “Lake Of Fire,” would go virtually unseen though it seemed like things were back on track when Kaye was hired to direct the New Orleans set thriller, “Black Water Transit” with Lawrence Fishburne, Karl Urban and Brittany Snow. Despite completing the film sometime in 2008 the producers became engaged in a lawsuit, one of them calling it “unreleasable,” and it’s looking as if that film may never see the light of day as three years have gone by without a release date. Known for his outlandish eccentricities, it's difficult to discern how much the drama that encircles Kaye is just bad luck and how much he brings on himself (unless you read that 2003 Vanity Fair profile back that certified him as a nut). But after viewing "Detachment" (and witnessing Kaye’s loopy introduction to the film), it becomes clear that Kaye is his own worst enemy.


Adrien Brody stars as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who floats around between troubled inner city public schools and may have a troubled past of his own. Opening with candid interview footage with (presumably) real teachers, the picture then dovetails into an interview with Brody’s character talking about the educational system. These faux confessionals are woven throughout the film as one of several narrative devices. Henry arrives at a particularly troubled school run by Principal Deardon (Marcia Gay Harden) who informs him of his sterling reputation, which is unusual in his line of work. Within minutes of arriving in the classroom, Henry is nearly assaulted by a student and a cutaway shows another teacher being spit on and threatened with gang rape.

The rest of the faculty (and rather motley crew cast) includes Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, James Caan, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson and William Petersen as teachers and administrators all being pushed to the brink by the oppressive hopelessness of some of their students. Unfortunately, for the most part their roles are reduced to mere minutes onscreen. (Petersen gets the worst of it, appearing in a dozen scenes but never given anything to do besides break up a fight between students.) Besides a brief flirtation and date with Hendricks’ character, Henry’s main role seems to be that of a savior. He tries to help an artistic but suicidal student (Betty Kaye) and also befriends a teenage prostitute (newcomer Sami Gayle).

A loner, as evidenced by Henry's empty apartment in the ghetto, the film's endless flashbacks shed some light on his traumatic childhood responsible for his behavior. Unfortunately the flashbacks are both repetitive and numerous, and don’t end up revealing much more than you might have assumed already from his disposition. Other story elements are rushed. When Hendricks’ character walks in on Henry consoling a student she automatically assumes there’s something inappropriate going on but considering their close relationship it seems like a leap for her character.

Even as the film is bad, it’s compulsively watchable. There is also some pretty obvious foreshadowing in the film and a tragic finale that recalls “American History X” but here it feels rote. Kaye’s shock tactics seem obvious and juvenile but the biggest waste here is the cast, who are completely dedicated to the material or whatever message Kaye thought he was getting at, but are squandered throughout. Written by first time screenwriter (and former L.A. public school teacher) Carl Lund, it’s an earnest and passionate effort, but it’s just not very good, and Kaye's experimental ideas seem to undermine the narrative at every turn. Between his unconventional shooting style and his method of filming (handing the actors pages of dialogue just minutes before a scene) it’s hard to tell if there was a decent movie in there somewhere that needed rescuing by another filmmaker.

Though the story is simple, you’ve seen it before in everything from “Dangerous Minds” to “The Class,” Kaye dresses it up like fever dream. He wants to provoke but can’t seem to get a hold of a truly provocative idea. The director operates the camera himself, frequently letting parts of the frame go in and out of focus as if he’s so interested in capturing the performances he can’t be bothered to keep up with pulling focus. His wide angle lens turn domestic scenes, like the principle’s husband (Bryan Cranston in a brief cameo) trying to comfort her, into a grotesque farce. You’d like to think Kaye is in on the joke but the whole thing is sadly just deadly serious.

A bizarre, well intentioned mess, at the very least, "Detachment" is never dull. During the film, Henry brings up the term “doublethink” (popularized by George Orwell in “1984”) describing two mutually contradictory beliefs. Whether intentional or not, the film seems to send two conflicting messages. Its bleakness is contrasted by almost comical scenes of earnestness. Is the film an indictment of our educational system or is it a character study of a man coming to grips with his past? The picture can never quite decide and the two never coalesce either. So much time is spent on Henry's outside relationships (his dying father, his teenage prostitute gal pal) that you never really get to see him getting through to the kids in his classroom. So when towards the end of the film, a previously violent student tells Henry that he's going to miss him after he's gone, you're left scratching your head. While another film about a teacher with the determination to get through to his class could have been interesting with a fresh perspective, Kaye simply can't find it, resulting in a film that feels like it's going to have be left back to repeat a year. [D+]

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8 Comments

  • tony kaye | May 22, 2011 12:32 PMReply

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFBlokRR6CY

  • meghan | April 29, 2011 8:12 AMReply

    Please..this is so much better than most of the crap these actors ever get to do.. Kaye is brilliant..he just needs to keep working.

  • David Warren | April 29, 2011 2:17 AMReply

    Sorry couldn’t resist again:
    Courtesy of the Hollyood Reporter:
    “Detachment” is clearly the work of a powerhouse filmmaker trying to shake audiences up.

    NEW YORK — Movies have been depicting the horrors of the American educational system for more than half a century, from The Blackboard Jungle to Dangerous Minds and others too numerous to mention. But none has reached quite the nightmarish depths of Detachment, the latest effort from cinematic provocateur Tony Kaye. This film depicting the hellish experiences of a high school substitute teacher makes such previous works by the filmmaker as American History X seem positively lighthearted by comparison. Commercial prospects look dicey, but there’s sure to be kudos for the film, which recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

    Adrien Brody, delivering his finest performance since The Pianist, plays the central role of the disaffected Henry Barthes.

    Henry’s latest gig is at an inner-city public school that is clearly falling apart. Its principal (Marcia Gay Harden) is about to be forced out due to abysmal test scores, the teachers and other staff members all seem to be floundering, and the vast majority of students display zero interest in learning.

    But the kids do respond positively to Henry’s stoic demeanor, his refusal to back down in the face of their taunts and his uncommon degree of empathy. Among those who blossom under his tutelage is Meredith (Betty Kaye, the director’s daughter), an emotionally fragile young woman who displays a genuine talent for photography.

    While attempting to handle his demanding work duties, Henry must also contend with a grandfather (Louis Zorich) suffering from dementia and — representing the film’s most clichéd element — a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle) who he takes under his wing.

    As usual, the director injects intense visual stylization into the proceedings to frequently arresting effect. The film begins with stark, black- and-white filmed interviews with presumably real teachers describing their experiences and also includes brief animated snippets commenting on the action and a series of sepia-toned flashbacks depicting a traumatic event from Henry’s childhood.

    Carl Lund’s screenplay is most effective in its depictions of the charged interactions between the students and teachers, which could have been written by Paddy Chayefsky in his prime. Among the powerful performers in the terrific ensemble are James Caan as a wisecracking older teacher who’s seen it all, Christina Hendricks as a colleague who takes a shine to Henry, Lucy Liu as a guidance counselor reduced to verbally abusing her charges, and Tim Blake Nelson as a teacher on the verge of cracking.

    The younger performers make equally strong impressions, and Brody delivers an award-caliber turn that is all the more effective for the quiet restraint he exhibits for most of the film’s running time.

    It could certainly be argued that Detachment is ultimately more sensationalistic than it is enlightening. But there’s no denying that it’s the work of a powerhouse filmmaker trying to shake audiences up. Here he succeeds handily.

  • Melinda E. | April 28, 2011 9:14 AMReply

    I had purchased four tickets for "Detachment," but alas, I had to sell mine at the last minute to attend an opening night on Broadway. However, the three friends who did see the film absolutely raved about it. They even mentioned a humorous scene with James Caan. To them it was not a bleak film, but one that was extremely moving and left them with lots to talk about. I hope it gets a distributor so I too can join the conversation.

  • Gabe Toro | April 28, 2011 7:06 AMReply

    Good review, but for the record, a big disagree here. I don't think I've seen a more upsetting, emotionally-intimate film in months. Also, re: underused cast... I was pretty sure you can see Emily Deschanel and Doug E. Doug as mute teachers in this movie.

  • Anna | April 28, 2011 6:30 AMReply

    I saw this at TFF. I agree with this whole-heartedly. Kaye made a vigorous attempt to be meaningful, but wasn't a very compelling film

  • The Playlist | April 28, 2011 5:51 AMReply

    More fan fiction?

  • Jack Easton | April 28, 2011 5:49 AMReply

    Christina Hendricks is so beautiful and voluptuous. This stunningly gorgeous and curvaceous young woman is pure American perfection. I love her. She’s a really sweet girl.

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