Originally Reviewed – 4/30/2011
8:30 PM, April 29th, the 11th evening of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Upon getting to the theater, the crowd was buzzing about the world premiere of the latest film from director Tony Kaye. Mostly known for his brilliant American History X, slightly known for the polarizing abortion documentary Lake Of Fire and widely known for being a wild eccentric, nobody can deny Kaye’s skill behind the camera. However, when one of the festival employees walked up to the audience before the screening, pulled out a microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Tony Kaye is with us tonight and would like to say a few words”, nobody was prepared. Sporting a 13th century beard, an acoustic guitar and a sense of boundless enthusiasm, he walked up to the screen, said literally three words about the color red and sat back down. A strange introduction to the film to be sure but, in the end, completely appropriate. Detachment, a film about a substitute teacher dealing with the issues in both his own life and in the school of troubled kids he works in, is easily the best movie Kaye has ever made. A film of undeniable beauty and an unwavering understanding of the human condition, Detachment is an experience best taken in without any introduction at all.
Staring Adrian Brody, in what’s easily his finest performance since his Oscar winning turn in the Pianist, Detachment starts off as raw as you would expect a Tony Kaye film to be. Brody is wonderful in the role, both in the classroom standing up to some of the most intensely troubled kids you’ll see in a film and in his private life. Brody plays both the tough yet pragmatic school teacher and the tortured soul at home, each with a skill that’s amazing to watch. While Brody reminded me of Ryan Gosling’s character in the excellent Half Nelson, Brody’s issues are more deeply rooted and better explained than the pain of Gossling. Also, while Gossling deals with his demons by shooting up in a girl’s locker room, Brody is much more stoic, purging his demons in spurts of frustration in an overall sea of numbness. The rest of the cast is damn near pitch perfect, including Marcia Gay Harden as the school’s principal, James Cann as the callous yet hilarious veteran teacher and Kaye’s own daughter, Betty as a troubled yet talented teen looking for direction. The cast is well utilized and nary is a frame wasted in telling the stories of people stretched to their absolute limits.
On the storytelling front, Kaye has never been one to shy away from the more intense side of film-making, and he doesn’t start here. In documenting the scholastic hell Brody and company find themselves in, Kaye pull no punches providing some of the grittiest scenes I’ve ever seen in a film about emotionally disturbed kids. The crazy thing is, despite the extreme nature of the students, I can’t help but think these children exist. Ignored by failing schools, pandered to by teachers who have checked out and seeing no support from blame shifting parents, it is obvious screenwriter Carl Lund experienced these outcast students first hand. No matter how extreme it may be, everything in the movie feels genuine and rooted in reality. The pain of both supporting and being in this fringe society is hammered home, almost to the point of melodrama. However, Kaye balances this film out beautifully, not only providing dark humor, mostly in the work of Cann, but giving the audience a glimpse of light at the end of the emotional tunnel. Kaye understands that there’s always a glowing ember in even the darkest of stories and by helping his actors make positive decisions, even when dealing with some heavy emotional baggage, the film allows the audience to push through the heart-rending drama. The film is also marvelously shot in Kaye’s signature style, all leading up to a final set of scenes that defines the word jaw-dropping.
Despite his technical brilliance, Tony Kaye is far from a Hollywood darling. During the making of American History X, he fought with his actors, made New Line Cinema delirious with demands, took out full page ads in trade papers condemning the film and begged the Directors Guild to remove his name from the credits. Even at the premiere, he looked off with his ragamuffin bread, jangly walk and difficult speech impediment. To be fair, if you saw him on the street, you’d probably think he was homeless. However, after experiencing Detachment and seeing that there is indeed a genius behind the hoopla, I can only say that I hope it doesn’t take another thirteen years before his next dramatic film. Hell, if he needs some cash to help it get going, I’ll pony up a couple of bucks. The wild haired, guitar toting director that had made me think, “Oooh, he’s a little crazy” at the outset, had created a work of art that shocked me into silence. Simply put, the world needs more directors with a singular, soulful vision and the will to put it on screen for the world to see. A movie that cements Kaye as a filmmaker of skill, daring and insight, Detachment is a must see for anybody who’s felt at some point that the world was full of insurmountable pain yet still found the strength to push on anyway.
Note: While I try to do the most bare bones synopsis possible when writing my reviews (let’s be honest, you can read what a flick is about on this very site), I purposefully left out as much as possible about the plot of Detachment. Suffice to say, I wouldn’t want to lessen the impact of the movie by giving away any of the story points. Seriously, when it reaches theaters, just see it. You won’t be disappointed. Also, when the credit finished rolling, Kaye was kind enough to do a brief question and answer session. Usually, when this happens, the movie elite like to barrage the filmmakers with questions: what was your motivation, how was working with Brody, etc. Even I had thought up a question about who was the teacher that influenced him as a kid and if he ever was one of these cast off students. This time though, nobody uttered a sound. If a film can get connect with a room full of film geeks enough to stun them into complete silence, you know it’s something special.
Score – 100%