In 1998, director Tony Kaye made one of the most auspicious debuts in film history with American History X, yet it was a film he disowned. He railed against the system that didn’t allow him final cut, and he perpetuated a myth that the film’s star, Edward Norton (who gave a galvanizing performance as a Neo-Nazi that catapulted his name onto the A-list) meddled with the film at the behest of the studio to make it his own and not Kaye’s. The end result was a film that became a cultural touch point for my generation. It was probably the most talked about film in my dorm room freshman year of college. It was a film so raw and violent in its emotional outbursts that it ranked as one of those films “I only care to see once” yet I will never ever forget the “upper jaw to the curb” or the “dinner table Neo-Nazi tirade” scenes so long as I still have a coherent memory.
In Europe, Kaye’s enfant terrible persona would’ve been celebrated, but in Hollywood, he was subjected to a modern-day blacklisting. Since that time, he’s made a few documentaries (including an apparently incendiary one about abortion that even I am too scared to watch entitled Lake of Fire) and has one completed film mired in legalistic backlog (how ironic) interestingly titled Black Water Transit. And yet…in 2012…somehow…against all odds, quietly emerges his newest film, Detachment.
In its tale of inner-city teachers struggling to survive and connect with out-of-control students neglected by vapid parents, Kaye’s film (scripted by Carl Lund) is full of grotesque stereotypes, overt symbolism and some of the most annoying hand-held shaky-cam aesthetics I have ever endured. Yet for all of its Crash-like didacticism and reductionism, when Kaye (who also served as the director of photography) allows his camera to stay static and his actors to fill the scene with their soliloquies, the result is positively electrifying and poetic. It’s still obvious after all these years that Kaye plied his trade in commercials, and his ability to fill a static shot with mood and purpose is awesome. When he allows that mood he creates to be married to preeminent purveyors of their craft (witness a cavalcade of familiar and well-trained faces from James Caan and Blythe Danner to Lucy Liu and Christina Hendricks), it makes for engaged and emotional viewing.
In the lead role, Adrien Brody plays a temp teach with a troubled past, and the actor delivers his greatest performance since The Pianist. His crooked nose, bony frame, and sallow face speak volumes of the pain he endures. His choice of profession is tragically fitting given his upbringing. In a way, he represents our modern public schools on the brink of collapse – full of good intentions weighed down by guilt, shame and bureaucracy. He witnessed his mother commit suicide when he was just seven years-old, and his grandfather took to raising him. All along, he felt there was something unsavory in his grandfather’s relationship with his mother though he never was able to uncover the truth, but as his grandfather succumbs to dementia, he feels a duty to take care of him and show him a bit of forgiveness. Meanwhile, he sees himself as the rotten spawn of a toxic environment and puts himself in situations where he tries to help his students in ways that lead to accidentally inappropriate or misread situations. He’s incapable of forgiving himself, while refusing to allow anything (good, bad or indifferent) to become a permanent fixture in his life. It’s refreshing to see such a psychologically and morally complex character portrayed on-screen (usually this is the stuff of great novels) and Brody is just the right type of actor to traverse that emotional minefield with the greatest of care.
And Kaye, though aged with bitterness and regret, is that same “look, ma, no hands!” filmmaker he was nearly fifteen years ago when making American History X. He takes every character and caricature to the extreme. He wants to shock. He wants to provoke. He can’t stop moving. It’s like he’s some troubled student with ADHD using his over diagnosed disability as an excuse to act out. Yet…when he stands still…when he thinks for just one moment about the consequences of his actions…of his framing…of his composition…it’s a thing of raw beauty to behold. For all of its stereotypes…for all of its in-your-face literary motifs (I absolutely loved “The Fall of the House of Usher” quoting at the end)…for all of its screaming actors “ACTING!”…for its moral quandaries…and for its rallying against “No Child Left Behind”…Detachment represents the type of ballsy American filmmaking we are in desperate need of. Chide it for its faults. Praise it for its bold declaration that detachment is never the answer.
Kaye has been detached from Hollywood for a long time. I’m hoping this is a sign he’s willing to work his way back into the establishment and shake it up before it’s too late. We need ya, Tony Kaye, we need ya like a jawbone needs a cracking on a curb. Bring it. We’re ready for it. Wake us up!
Written by David H. Schleicher