What’s eating filmmaker Tony Kaye? In Detachment, his first feature film since 1998’s American History X, the director rails at everything: The public school system, bullying, bad parenting, apathy, corruption and oh these kids today! Kaye employs various film stocks, extreme close-ups, subliminal images and complex sound effects to put you inside the heads of his protagonists. You feel their boiling rage and frustration and disappointment. The movie has an undeniable visceral power. It is also a loud, grating wallow in dime-store despair, a cheap and hollow button-puncher.
Written by Carl Lund, the film centers on Henry (Adrien Brody), who drifts through his life like a ghost. Henry is a substitute teacher, an ideal profession for someone wary of emotional connections. He wanders in and out of the lives of his high school students, visits his ailing grandfather (Louis Zorich) at a nursing home and lives alone in a drab apartment.
At work, Henry tries — and mostly fails — to impact the lives of his rude, violent pupils. He commiserates with his fellow faculty members (including James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden and Christina Hendricks), who are frustrated by society’s grand indifference to their plight (not a single person shows up for the school’s parent-teacher night). The slim plot consists of Henry’s decision to save a young prostitute (newcomer Sami Gayle) from the mean streets, much like Robert DeNiro did with Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.
But Henry’s emotional alienation gets in the way just when the girl needs him the most. Every scene in Detachment is pitched at the same shrieking volume, and Kaye’s relentlessly nihilistic outlook is exhausting. This is the sort of shallow, empty-headed movie that passes off tragedy and ugliness as substance. There is a suicide in the film that is so overwrought and manipulative, it comes off as ridiculous: The scene makes you laugh.
Kaye is an exceptional maker of documentaries — his epic-length Lake of Fire, about the abortion debate, is a sensational, gripping movie — but he’s a terrible, histrionic storyteller. Detachment conclusively proves that Edward Norton was right when he pulled rank on Kaye and took American History X away from him, recutting it in the editing room himself.
Left to his own devices in Detachment, Kaye thrusts his camera into the actors’ faces while encouraging them to overact, doing them no favors. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston shows up in one scene and radiates so much demonic evil with just a simple look, you wish the movie followed him instead of returning to its hysterical high school shenanigans. No luck. For all the time spent in classrooms, Detachment is ultimately an attack on bad parenting and the corrosive, far-reaching damage it wreaks on society. But Kaye’s delivery is so shrill it drowns out his message. You agree with what he’s saying, but you also want to tell him to shut up.
Cast: Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, James Caan, Louis Zorich, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston.
Director: Tony Kaye.
Screenwriter: Carl Lund.
Producers: Bingo Gubelmann, Benji Kohn, Carl Lund.
A Tribeca Film release. Running time: 97 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, violence, adult themes, rampant overacting. Opens Friday May 11 in Miami-Dade: Tower, Cosford, Miami Beach Cinematheque.