Say goodbye to Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The crusading teacher has enjoyed a long career on the big screen, but Detachment is fiercely determined to tear up the resumé along with every last shred of pedagogical hope. This is an extended scream of despair, a white hot flame of a movie that doesn't illuminate the darkness so much as deepen it. On occasion, the intense heat definitely looks real – a few scenes are scorching – but the overall effect is just the opposite. That's because the film is guilty of reverse sentimentality, where the relentless unhappiness comes to seem as manufactured and artificial as the schmaltz in a romcom. Ultimately, Detachment invites us to feel precisely what it warns against – detached.
The screamer is British director Tony Kaye who, having tackled the issues of neo-Nazism in American History X and abortion in Lake of Fire, now turns his stylized attention to the plight of inner-city schools in the United States, Brooklyn to be precise. His investigative lamp is the baleful stare of Adrien Brody, cast here as a substitute teacher with exemplary skills but no staying power. Henry is his name and disengagement is his studied posture: Being a "sub," he leaves before getting attached to students who are beyond saving, to staffs who are merely helpless, and to a system that is absolutely, irreparably broken.
After that, the news gets bad. Indeed, bearing the scars of a troubled past, Henry is no healthier than the system. His once-abusive grandfather is dying in an underfunded and uncaring nursing home, while the fate of his late mother, hinted at in flashbacks, isn't hard to guess. Sometimes Kaye has him addressing the camera directly; in other instances, he dramatizes the action in his English class. Either way, Henry draws heavily on the bleaker utterances of everyone from Poe and Camus to Orwell and Bob Dylan in his My Back Pages phase. In other words, he feeds the doomed kids a steady diet of doom-and-gloom truths which, remarkably, they seem to find tasty – their behaviour improves if not their prognosis.
Elsewhere in the school, an impressive gathering of actors – including Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Blythe Danner – round out the rest of the staff, although each is reduced to playing variations on the same two notes of defeat and/or cynicism. As for the plot, Henry faces a trio of females who have all warmed to his cold demeanour: Fellow teacher Sarah (Christina Hendricks on sabbatical from Mad Men), tormented student Meredith, and Erica the teenage hooker whose heart of gold is the only bright cliché in the compendium. So love does rear its head but, in this climate of reverse sentimentality, anything remotely elevated is bound to wind up on Kaye's chopping block. This guy is the anti-Obama – he puts hope to the guillotine.
Of course, used too often, the blade loses its edge and things get dull. Nevertheless, such is Kaye's sheer ferocity that some of the sequences still have a wounding power that can deeply affect us – for example, the parallel meltdowns of Meredith and Erica, different in motivation but identically heart-rending. Also, the film clearly owes a debt to Season 4 of The Wire and, at best, zeroes in hard on the same problems – the bogus panacea of "test scores"; good teachers put under the yoke of blind administrators. To compound that debt, Isiah Whitlock Jr., memorable as the corrupt Clay Davis on the HBO series, appears here in a brief but similar role, still wreaking havoc with his unctuous charm.
At one point, having finally gained his kids' attention, Henry extols reading as a self-preserving skill, a necessary defence against "the powers that be who are hard at work dumbing us to death." To Kaye's credit, Detachment wants to be a beacon of smarts in that sea of cultural dumbness. At times it is smart, but it's never a beacon – a pitch-black lighthouse points the way to nowhere.
- Directed by Tony Kaye
- Written by Carl Lund
- Starring Adrien Brody, Christina Hendricks, James Caan
- Classification: 14A