Monday Editor’s Pick: Detachment (2011)

by on March 6, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon March 12 at 7:00 at 92YTribeca [Program & Tix]
*Star Adrien Brody in-person
92YTribeca offers a sneak peek at the latest meditation on the American education system, this one a decidedly different take by rascal director Tony Kaye (essentially blacklisted from Hollywood following the controversial production, or post-production, of American History X, until now).


The screening will be presented by Adrien Brody, who was widely acclaimed for his starring role as a substitute teacher with a traumatic past. On screen, Brody keeps company with TV faves Christina Hendricks, Bryan Cranston, and Lucy Liu (not to mention Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Blythe Danner…). The films opens March 16.


Andrew O’Hehir saw it last year at Tribeca, for Salon:

The turning point in Tony Kaye’s new movie, “Detachment” — which, despite many nameable flaws, is a wrenching and powerful achievement — comes when Lucy Liu, playing a high school guidance counselor, suffers a major breakdown in front of a student. It’s easy to be callous, she shrieks at the bored and bewildered girl in front of her, easy not to give a shit. What takes courage is actually caring about yourself and the world. Sure, you can call that a hackneyed sentiment, and some people won’t get past the fact that “Detachment” is delivering a familiar message in a familiar setting. But two things redeem the scene, at least for me: 1) What Liu says is absolutely true, and it is one of the central problems in contemporary life, and 2) she’s not saying it from some position of cool, removed wisdom; she’s pissed off, filled with rage, and completely losing her shit at a girl whose only crime was announcing that she doesn’t care about school and wants to be a model.
“Detachment” might be the biggest conversation piece I’ve seen so far at 2011’s Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a scattershot, melodramatic would-be epic set in and around a New York high school, with a tremendous cast headed by Oscar-winner Adrien Brody as a substitute teacher struggling with his own barren emotional life. It’s an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink kind of movie with a Fellini level of ambition. Kaye blends animated sequences along with dreams, memories and fantasies, mini-interviews with real-life teachers, dogmatic lectures about the failings of our society, and quotations from Albert Camus and Edgar Allan Poe. Carl Lund’s screenplay hits a lot of flat notes and the acting is uneven, but ultimately I didn’t much care — I was swept along by the spectacular visual journey and the wrenching emotional experience. People will either love “Detachment” or hate it, and either way it provides powerful testimony to the unrivaled passion and undiminished craft of director Kaye.



Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter:

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.
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.



New York Magazine promises more than meets the eye:

It may look like an ordinary substitute-teacher-in-a-troubled-urban-school drama, but Kaye’s surprisingly wild and sprawling film is actually an allegorical, multicharacter, mixed-media epic that’s as much about the sorry state of society as it is about the American education system.


Jonathan Sullivan is nuts about Brody, for The Film Stage:

It’s hard to not sound like a gushing quote whore when talking about Brody’s performance, but I have to risk it: he’s simply magnificent as Henry Barthes in every way you can possibly conceive of. And you know within the first few minutes of meeting Henry that Brody is going to nail it out of the park; during his opening monologue, delivered to a faux-documentary crew, he displays everything you need to know about the character in his eyes alone.

Detachment is a movie that I found myself loving, warts and all. It’s hard to take at times, and the lack of screentime from supporting characters is disappointing, but Tony Kaye has created an uncompromisingly raw look at how a bleak situation brings out both the best and worst in us while also taking some well-deserved shots at the failing public school system. Brody is jaw dropping, and the rest of the cast excels despite some shortcomings in the storytelling. In a deeply affecting way, Detachment will break your heart and shake you to your core.



S.T. Van Airsdale grapples with the film and its button-pushing director, for Movieline:

Brody and co. commit themselves to Kaye, ultimately arriving at the point of viewers asking whether they’ve made a work of social activism or vast cultural nihilism. Set-ups of great portent (you’ve never heard the No Child Left Behind Act namedropped with such contempt) dovetail into weird-ass montages of HIV tests and dollar-store frolic, all tied together with interstitials of Brody — apparently as himself, a one-time NYC public school student and son of a teacher — expounding on the grave results of good intentions.

After a while, in fact, Detachment feels as though Kaye is telling a ghost story — a novel, really, with characters and back stories fluttering through magic-hour prisms and saturated nocturnal light, their yelps and groans and pleas and dins and salutations and whispers hand-stiched into narrative breaths, their memories folded into daydreams and pummeled into nightmares, these fluorescent-lit cathedrals of learning dismantled before their inhabitants’ eyes, finally windblown into oblivion. The film demands being take seriously even as it testifies to its own futility, like the obituary of some household name you loved as a kid. It’s point-blank blame and benediction of teachers themselves, resolving only to leave you wondering how things got so bad while also wondering why no one told you sooner how bad they’d been getting. Resolving, that is, when it’s not suggesting you never listened in the first place and most definitely aren’t listening now.

Indeed, it’s easy to be cynical about any film that appears to revel in undermining its own convictions. But for all of Tony Kaye’s creative quirks and difficulties, there’s always been an unmistakable redemption in his zeal — that of a filmmaker to engage with. He’s a rare species at this festival and, increasingly, anywhere else for that matter. I can take or leave his pre-screening serenades. And while his Detachment is only fitfully brilliant work, the mere knowledge that it’s meant — and for what, I can’t be sure — leaves me admiring it.



He also talks to Brody:

You’ve obviously worked with some pretty visionary filmmakers, from Terrence Malick to Roman Polanski to Spike Lee. Where does Tony Kaye fall on that spectrum, at least in terms of the actor/director relationship?
Tony is extremely collaborative. He’s also — and I don’t use the term lightly — a creative genius. I think he has a unique ability to make the most of any situation. With independent filmmaking you have very limited resources and time, and it’s a tremendous accomplishment filming the movie Tony has filmed in New York City under the budget restrictions we had. Tony also [camera] operates, so he’s a D.P. as well. There’s a greater intimacy and connection with the filmmaker when he and the protagonist are… I mean, it’s a dance — the art of capturing that and lighting that. Sometimes you have a wonderful D.P. come in and create a visual scape that’s really beautiful. But obviously there’s a disconnect between the filmmaker and the performer — what the director wants to capture in a given moment. Tony is relatively specific in what he’s looking for, and he can just jump in and capture that. You, as a performer, really feel that presence and enthusiasm rather than the director sitting in another room watching on a monitor. You know what I mean?

Of course. Yet perhaps in part due to methods like that, he’s also mythologized as difficult and intense and an unwavering perfectionist — not always in a good way. Is any of that fair? And are any of those accurate attributes that actually work in his favor?
I think there’s a relatively negative stigma attached to the way that is depicted, don’t you agree?
An “unwavering perfectionist” is an asset in many ways — and I would agree that there is this relentless desire within him to create the most beautiful and truthful creative approach to his storytelling. Sometimes things aren’t achievable given time frames or the loss of light or whatever, but Tony always finds a way to make it work. And that is something that’s a tremendous asset to any production. You know? He’s an artist! Artists are creative and not entirely predictable, and you have to embrace that quality, I think. I can’t speak of his other experiences because I wasn’t there. But I can speak of my experiences and my respect for him and admiration for him as a pure creative spirit and someone who wants only the best for his production and what he wants to share with the audience. That is rare. I’ve been fortunate; I’ve worked with a lot of creative geniuses, and every one of them has their individual strengths they bring to the table. I think what Tony brings is phenomenal and very encouraging also for me and my process. This was a labor of love for all of us. That kind of passion goes a long way.



Kaye himself talks to Kristin McCracken for the Huffington Post:

How do you describe Detachment in your own words?
I talk about Detachment differently every time I answer this question, but really the simplest and most honest thing for me to say is that Detachment is a movie that I strived to create through truthful and honest performances — no more, no less.
I took a text that was written by an ex-teacher (Carl Lund) and grabbed a handful of actors (one being my oldest daughter Betty!) who were magnetized to his writing — and I guess were intrigued by working with me — and helped them get to a place of blazing reality in the moment they were acting it out.
I believe that the craft of the teacher is a wondrous one — maybe the most important profession under God’s sun. It is very simply the formation of tomorrow, and these souls should be paid billions of monies. That way, the very greatest minds would be attracted to the job. Or maybe it’s right that they are not paid billions of monies, so that people who are motivated purely by money are not drawn to it. But what society needs is peeps who want to be as potentially dynamic and peeps who want to be the next Steve Jobs! And then Adrien Brody appeared.
Though he is surrounded by first-rate colleagues, Adrien Brody is the heart and soul of Detachment; his performance blew me away. Did you immediately have him in mind for Henry? What was he like to work with?

I forget the exact beats of how Adrien got involved, but it was like dynamite for me. Adrien’s father was a public high school teacher for 30 years, so he had the perfect education and manner and understanding of the world for this role; all that was left for me to do was to turn his engine on. I decided from the get-go that I was going to give everything to Adrien’s character, Henry Barthes, and with every passing day of the shoot, our collaboration got better. Our work together set the template that the rest of the cast followed; the house that Adrien and I built became the temple of the congregation.
I always thought that Adrien was a gifted actor, but I never realized just how good he actually is. To me, he is the epitome of the great New York school of acting — like Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino — an actor who has to do nothing but walk in front of a camera.
What makes Detachment a must-see? What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

I don’t believe that Detachment is a movie to be seen, but rather to be felt or experienced. Don’t go to see it if you are looking for a movie about education, because it’s not that. It’s a movie you go to and then when you go home, you’ll think about people in a different way, a deeper way — maybe a better way, hopefully…


Cory Everett labels the film “a fascinating mess that you can’t look away from,” for The Playlist.
Stephen Saito also “couldn’t look away,” in more positive light for IFC:

Kaye’s worldview remains unpleasant and decidedly un-P.C., but all with the sole intention to provoke. However, Kaye’s lack of subtlety is made up for by his facility with images, which even as they include Nazi propaganda and gonorrhea-infected vaginas (in the film’s funniest scene, no less), somehow work in that indescribable harmony that’s the mark of a true artist.
“Detachment” is very much hit-and-run, though it’s got a solid anchor in Brody, who can consider himself redeemed for that Stella Artois commercial if it meant taking on something dangerous like this. Due to Kaye’s unusual shooting methods – closeups where an actor’s face is dead center of the frame, shooting upward from the ground, etc. — Brody is occasionally left high and dry as an actor since when an unusual angle is employed, it becomes apparent that he’s acting, but with the film flipping back and forth between Barthes in the classroom and sitting by himself analyzing what he and other teachers go through, it suggests that the performance is necessary to communicate and deflect with students whose attention spans have been winnowed in this day and age.
In many ways, it’s that ADD generation that Kaye may connect with the most since it works far more at a subconscious level and practically, the director appears to be far less interested in answers than throwing grenades. Many of them are the same that have been brought out in previous battles — the downfall of public education is the fault of absent parents, teachers who can’t properly connect with their students, an emphasis on test scores and the dehumanization that takes place of both pupils and educators within the walls of the schools – only here, they have the ability to sear […] what I do know is it shook up an all-too-polite debate on education, not to mention a film festival known for programming safe choices, and the result is something that, unlike the characters in “Detachment” who struggle with retaining their humanity, you cannot disconnect from.


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