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Filmfest Hamburg `11: `Detachment´, experimental, griddy and hard to detach from!


Directed by Tony Kaye

Screenplay by Carl Lund

2011, USA

He is back; with a tough and grim perspective: Tony Kaye‘s most recent fiction feature is not suited for an easy and entertaining visit at the movies, but judging from this director‘s filmography you wouldn‘t expect much else. His fiction debut American History X from 1998 generated quite a lot of controversy. Not just the storyline but all the difficulties surrounding the films production caused quite the stir. After all that Kaye has not had it easy. It is sadly highly unlikely that Detachment will manage to reach American History X‘s public success. So far the film, only has a release date for the US and its artistic appeal combined with a bulky story does not make it overly attractive for distributors these days. Non the less these are also the reason why the film stands so strong, it is its overwhelming intensity and brilliant aesthetics that captivate. It is a loud film that has many important things to say, even in the quiet sidetones that might sometimes get drowned in all the extremes presented…

The hellish circumstances of American high schools are nothing new to the screen, yet Kaye takes it one step further without much light and hope. Scattered, disjointed, fragmentary and detached, this is the overall arch that story and aesthetics follow.

The film develops around the character of Henry Barthes a substitute teacher – brilliantly played by Adrien Brody – who could have the ability to truly make a difference but is never at an institution long enough. On the surface, the plot is summed up rather quickly, Henry is starting a new substitute position at a New York public high school, where he‘s facing a culmination of powerlessness and frustration. Principal Carole Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) is desperately trying to hold her position, as she is about to be cut, based on low test-score results. The student body is far from savable, already over the edge of psychopathy – hammering cats to death for fun. And all parents do is leave angry messages on the school‘s answering machine, while the teachers either get spat on (Christina Hendricks as Ms. Madison), or turn to popping happy pills (James Caan as veteran educator). Henry as a teacher appears eerily balanced, while it quickly becomes apparent that his switch is flipped just as fast as that of his students. Professionalism is juxtaposed with his private life where he is on the one hand very caring for his aging father while on the other hand easily enraged. He wanders this world unable to get attached to anything or anyone anymore as that would come at too great of a cost – inevitable disappointment and one‘s own sanity. This changes, to a certain extent after he takes in teen hooker Erica (Sami Gayle). The line up next to Brody reads overwhelmingly grand (Bryan Cranston, Blythe Danner, Lucy Liu and Tim Blake Nelson), yet only very few of them get a chance rise to their full potential, as the picture clearly circles around its central character Henry Barthes. Betty Kaye – yes the director‘s daughter – does however manage to shine next to Brody in the role of Meredith, a slightly overweight student in Henry’s class.

The fact that parts of the story are somewhat predictable – knowing of Kaye‘s love for provocation through darkness in a less than subtle way – is easily overcome thanks to the film‘s aesthetics and striking performances. Kaye‘s use of unusual framing, unconventional use of close-ups, and an almost analytical editing technique substantiate what the film has to say. Brody‘s outstanding performance within this frustrated, detached and scattered setting of private and professional life, arranged in a constant switch between the two, are what takes the story to another level.

Kaye stylistically captures this fast paced world, where attention spans only last for the blink of an eye and where caring alone simply isn‘t going to cut it anymore. A film with an overwhelming intensity that makes it difficult to digest at times, sometimes at the cost of the subtle layer underneath the obvious darkness yet striking in its boldness to actually go where it does.

– Merle Fischer