Review: Detachment

PLOT: A disaffected substitute teacher with a troubled past must navigate his way through a flawed school system rife with disinterested students and emotionless teachers.

REVIEW: “The worst part about this job is that nobody says ‘thank you.'” In many ways, that quote, said by a battle-hardened teacher who has lost faith in his job, sums up Tony Kaye’s DETACHMENT, a confrontational, powerful movie that addresses the uncomfortable notion that sometimes teachers can’t make a different. The screenplay can only have come from a former teacher, and indeed, scribe Carl Lund used to toil away in a public school. I don’t know Mr. Lund’s story (and I’m not sure if DETACHMENT is based in part on any real-life experiences), but it’s clear that he lived the hard-knock reality of the profession: That not every person who steps inside of classroom with a mission to impart some knowledge can change their students’ lives or way of thinking. A lot of kids just don’t care, and, sadly, that apathy eventually seeps into some of the teachers. DANGEROUS MINDS, this is not.

Adrien Brody stars as Henry Barthes, a teacher who recognizes the potential futility of his job. He has relegated himself to being a substitute, meaning he’s always on the move and never much in the position of forging long-term attachments. He fights the good fight, does what he can, and has so far avoided turning into the burnt-out shell that many of his colleagues have become; he sees many of them retreat into self-medication or an outright state of blankness. The few who do still care only find themselves hurt when their good intentions are thwarted at every turn; by oblivious students, by parents who don’t give a shit, by a school district that wants higher test results without offering solutions. It’s a sobering look at education unlike any I can think of, and while it doesn’t condemn anyone specifically, it acts as a wake-up call, because this could be happening in the public school nearest you.

When we meet Henry, he’s having a crisis of the soul, of sorts. His grandfather is mentally deteriorating in a hospital (filled, of course, with employees who are numb to their jobs), while a past trauma involving the death of his mother seems to eat at him daily. We understand that Henry’s home life was not a happy one, and his abandonment issues are part of what keeps him traveling from classroom to classroom and school to school. Frankly, what Henry needs is a friend, and in a matter of days he acquires two new ones: a fellow teacher (Christina Hendricks) who still holds on to some idealism, and a teenage prostitute (newcomer Sami Gayle), who Henry takes in and cares for. Both of these women fall for Henry quickly, but Henry’s challenge will be opening himself up, to allow himself to connect.

This is a story that must be infused with a certain amount of palpable energy, and Lund’s script has found a colorful personality in Tony Kaye, the director of such hot button “issue” movies like AMERICAN HISTORY X and the abortion documentary LAKE OF FIRE. Kaye is also a veteran of commercials and music videos, so his style is eclectic and fractured. DETACHMENT has a weaving narrative that dips in and out of the Brody story and the subplots; it gives the film a bit of a documentary feel, as do the several bits where Brody addresses the camera directly, unloading his frustration in our direction. This is provocative, emotionally charged stuff done with a theatrical flourish. Alleviating the tension, we’re frequently taken out of the reality by amusing little animated skits that depict what’s going inside some of these teachers heads; a chalk drawing of a guidance counselor strangling herself with a phone appears when, in real life, the woman takes a call from an angry parent. It’s odd and a little jarring, but necessary. The atmosphere of the film is quite dour, and the bits of unusual humor are often a welcome relief.

Clearly, DETACHMENT is determined not to be your standard inspirational tale of a teacher getting his students to beat all the odds. We’re only in Brody’s classroom a handful of times, we hardly get to know any of his students (although one, an overweight artist, stands out), and the rousing speeches are kept to a bare minimum. Kaye and Lund are more focused on the put-upon teachers, and the former has rounded up a great supporting cast, including James Caan (as a pill-popper who finds a kind of dark amusement in his job), Lucy Liu (as a tortured guidance counselor on the verge of a breakdown) and Marcia Gay Harden (as the school’s intense principal who may soon be out of a job). It’s one of those dream ensembles that elevates the already persuasive material.

Brody is the truly unforgettable presence, however. After recently appearing in several movies that don’t showcase his considerable talent (PREDATORS and GIALLO come to mind), Brody seemed like he’d committed himself to a future in passable B-movies. But he gives a thoroughly moving performance in DETACHMENT, one filled with intense sorrow and passion (few modern day actors have such expressive eyes). Here Brody reminds us of the actor that won an Oscar.

Brody isn’t likely to receive tons of award show appearances for DETACHMENT, however, because of how uncomfortable of a proposition the picture is. There aren’t easy answers in Kaye’s movie, nor are the questions easily answered. What’s so good about it is that it doesn’t provide a solution for the state of education in this country; it’s simply a reminder – one that wonders what, if anything, can be done to fix the future.

Review: Detachment



About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.