Subtlety, thy name is not Tony Kaye. The British director’s American History X (1998) is best remembered for its sheer hateration; his landmark abortion documentary, Lake of Fire (2006), is not a triumph of tact, but a willingness to inhabit every viewpoint, no matter how extreme. All of this makes Kaye a somewhat lousy choice to take on the dense subject of America’s crumbling public schools. The original script (already histrionic) by former educator Carl Lund sets up a hell zone of furiously violent students, burned-out administrators and our hero, Henry (Adrien Brody), a forthright substitute teacher who tries to keep it all at an apathetic arm’s length (see title). Kaye also interrupts the flow with darkly ironic bits of chalkboard animation, as if bored by his own tale.
Still - and it’s a big still - the project has inspired a massive outpouring of commitment from its cast. Not only is Brody doing his soulful lonely-guy thing, but you get sparks from feisty James Caan, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks and Lucy Liu, the latter delivering a masterful meltdown as a snapped guidance counsellor. Everyone seems to care about these issues, so why does Detachment also require a waiflike prostitute in need of saving (Sami Gayle) and a ticking time bomb of an overweight student (Kaye’s daughter, Betty)? The movie is one big scream, clichéd and hardly credible as an oblique call to civility.