Bad, Bad Education
Director Tony Kaye's (American History X) first feature film in over a decade, Detachment is a brutal provocation of a film exploring ambivalence, social unease, and the failing public school system. Adrien Brody leads an extensive ensemble cast also including Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Tim Blake Nelson, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, and James Caan.
Brody portrays Henry Barthes, a full-time substitute teacher with a haunted past. In and out of troubled, violent, and sad classrooms he travels, surviving only by embracing a cool, benevolent detachment. The film opens with him coming to a new school with a desperate principal (Harden) on her way out. Students threaten and hurl profanities at teachers. A counselor (Liu) loses her cool and explodes at a rude student, describing the pint-sized villain's grim future of minimum-wage jobs and toxic relationships. This is a school in crisis. These are lives going under.
From the storyline, audiences might predict Detachment is a film in the tradition of Dead Poets Society and Stand and Deliver: a courageous rebel schoolteacher comes and challenges the system, opening the eyes and inspiring the hearts of his pupils. Cue the catharsis. But Detachment is not this film.
With ferocious cuts, an in-your-face shooting style, and a spirit operating between liberal concern and tabloid sensationalism, this film rages. It tears through the media-favored "answers" to the problem with schools (indifferent parents, disillusioned teachers, a system obsessed with standardized test scores) without coming to a simple answer of its own, interested more in disturbing moviegoers enough to inspire conversation and reflection. Brody delivers what might be his most compelling performance since The Pianist, and the film, while imperfect in many ways, registers as an absorbing and unsettling piece of serious cinema.