This film will, guaranteed, not be what you’re expecting. One of theatrical posters depicts Adrien Brody at the front of a classroom, albeit one empty save for some upturned desks and tables. In a way this is more of a summary of the film’s tone that you’d initially think; Brody’s character is something of a lone ranger, and world portrayed around him is that of disillusion and confusion.
Not wishing to put anyone off but this film is, a lot of the time, devastating. Brody’s character, high school teacher Henry Barthes, is evidently unhappy and very isolated, whether by choice or not it is unclear, but he seems to have little connection with people around him, only coming close on his visits to his confused grandfather in an old folks’ home, and of course his job as a substitute teacher which in itself requires avoidance of emotional connections. However Brody’s character, before long, finds himself lumbered with dependents. An adorable young prostitute (as bizarre as that sounds) offers him her services and instead he takes pity on her and lets her lodge with him; a particularly touching scene involves him tenderly cleaning her thighs of blood. This is arguably the most devastating subplot of the film; Sami Gayle has such a disturbingly infantile look about her, and her character inevitably forms an intense attraction to Henry who cannot reciprocate. Simultaneously – or perhaps not; the film often seems non-linear, interspersed with ‘talking heads’ – an overweight and troubled pupil looks desperately to him for emotional support.
Kaye does give us some comic relief, in the form of the disillusioned teacher played by James Caan; cynical, pill-popping but always humorous – everyone’s favourite type of teacher. But even so, the fellow teacher characters, which seem to give the film its realism to counteract its stylistic features, are all unhappy. Is it the profession that ultimately brings about chronic misery? We are not sure as we watch the headmistress make a school announcement whilst lying despondently on the floor of her office.
It is interesting to try and work out where this film lies in relation to, for example Dead Poets Society and The Class (Entrés les Murs); the former about the exciting influence of an inspirational teacher, the latter more about urban state school education, which it shares with Detachment. Brody’s character shows hints of inspiration as he somehow shows his pupils the futility of their aggressive behaviour, but he’s a long way from Robin Williams. One review even describes his character as “terminally depressed”. There are tender moments, moments of melancholic joy even, and the occasional laugh – or maybe just a chuckle – but mostly this film has no solution to whatever problem it’s addressing. Whether this problem is the short-comings of state school education, the pressure put on teachers, the continuing blind eye turned to troubled kids, or just the miseries of living a life of ‘detachment’, there is no easy answer. In this sense it could be easy to dismiss Tony Kaye’s film as simply too depressing, but since when was that a reason not to see a film? It is shot and edited beautifully, and Adrien Brody is fantastic to watch.