There’s a moment during the opening credits of ‘Detachment’ – ‘American History X’ director Tony Kaye’s dissection of the US school system – that sums up how flawed the film is. We open on real teachers talking to camera about their lives, struggles and reasons why they chose this job. Then we cut to Adrien Brody, as substitute English professor Henry Barthes, in the same pose – and the illusion shatters. There’s nothing wrong with Brody’s performance, except that it’s just that: acting. And the film suffers similarly throughout: however close it might be to the actual experience, it just feels fake.
Barthes arrives at a troubled New York middle school looking to keep his head down and offer a little moral support to the student body. But it becomes clear that the teachers (played by a striking ensemble cast including James Caan, Lucy Liu, Christina Hendricks and Marcia Gay Harden) need help, every bit as much as their drifting, listless charges.
Kaye’s direction is audacious, chucking in animated inserts and murky flashbacks to occasionally bracing effect. But his intentions are never clear – is this supposed to be an oblique character study, as a ‘Taxi Driver’-esque subplot involving a teen prostitute implies? If so, why give so much screen time to the other teachers? Or is the film trying to make a wider social statement about education – and if that’s the case, why undermine it with self-conscious fakery and stylised dialogue? Whatever the answers are, ‘Detachment’ doesn’t work, but it’s a fascinating, hypnotic and sometimes powerful failure.