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Released 13 July 2012
Director Tony Kaye

Adrien Brody, Christina Hendricks, James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, Bryan Cranston, William Petersen, Betty Kaye, Sami, Gayle
Writer(s) Carl Lund

Bingo Gubelmann, Benji Kohn, Carl Lund, Chris Papavasiliou, Greg Shapiro, Austin Stark
Origin United States
Running Time 98 minutes
Genre Drama
Rating 15A

A scream in the dark.

Whether he’s examining race relations in neo-Nazi drama American History X or providing a graphic insight into abortion in his documentary Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye always goads the audience into an emotional response. Following in this visceral tradition is Detachment, a scathing critique on the public school system that points the finger at anyone who will listen. Set in a troubled inner city high school, the film spares no one, with students, parents, teachers and administrators all portrayed in an equally unfavourable light. Dysfunction lies in every sector of this failed system and there is no easy solution (if there is one at all). Detachment makes the darkly magnetic Half Nelson look like Sweet Valley High. It’s not all doom and gloom though. There is a thin shred of optimism in the undertones but does it arrive too late to save a film that’s angry at itself and everyone around it?

Adrien Brody is on fine form here as Henry Barthes, a gifted substitute teacher with a troubled past that drifts from one assignment to the next, never staying long enough to form an emotional attachment to his students. And that suits him just fine. A faceless man in the classroom, Henry offers himself selflessly to others but when they demand too much he pulls away, as it interferes with the detachment he survives on. His master plan is to try really hard not to care and it’s only when he finally starts caring that his world comes crashing down. Acting on a whim, he offers teenage prostitute Erica (excellent newcomer Sami Gayle) a place to stay to get her off the streets but when she stops turning tricks and becomes a surrogate sister to him his detached ways won’t allow him to be happy.

Told in a vignette style similar to American History X, Detachment is interspersed with short animation sequences and quasi-personal confessionals in which Henry reveals his inner thoughts to an unseen interviewer. This zippy editing ensures that the audience always remains on Kaye’s wavelength. He asks tough questions but doesn’t give us any easy answers. Each character is dealt the same despairing hand and no avenue of escape is presented. Christina Hendricks plays the happy-go-lucky teacher and Henry’s love interest. Teaching is her life and she even takes being spit on and rape threats with a pinch of salt. James Caan is the world-weary teacher who pokes fun at the system and copes with ‘happy pills’, while Lucy Liu is the schools guidance councillor beginning to crack under the strain of her students apathetic nature. Unfortunately, the fine ensemble cast is underused (Bryan Cranston shows up for exactly one minute) but as the film moves along it becomes clear that this is Brody’s vehicle.

While the film occasionally slips into melodramatic territory and its argument is somewhat essentialist-not every school is like this and not every teacher is a soulless piece of driftwood-its central message always shines through that the system needs to change.

After a series of bad career decisions in recent years (including the unwatchable Predators), Adrien Brody proves once again why he won the Best Actor Oscar for The Pianist. At his best when portraying vulnerability and pain in the soul of his characters, he gives a patently understated performance as a conflicted loner facing demons from all angles.

Detachment isn’t an easy watch but it is an important one, even if it doesn’t offer any solutions to the problems it outlines. While it won’t be to everyone’s taste and Brody’s powerhouse performance is likely to be snubbed by award judges, this is a film that is guaranteed a deserved cult status in years to come.

- Cathal Prendergast