Saturday, April 21, 2012

Detachment (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Detachment" is the latest all-absorbing film by Tony Kaye, director of "American History X". It is never Kaye's style to pull any punches and he doesn't disappoint. His latest experiment is a character study within the world of public school. The film is a Kafkaesque vision colored with Crayola crayons  (in a predominate gray, white and black ) and laced with spots of red acrylic  that might lead to love or  loss.

Adrien Brody plays Henry Barthes, a permanent substitute whose very face is slanted by suspicion and sadness. Henry perpetually enters a hostile or temporary classroom working for a school that ebbs just under the bottom tier of achievement. The second Henry arrives, it is a daily flight or flight, an academic apocalypse of confusion, threat and insecurity. Angst is so ubiquitous that it seems as if the school itself is under a supernatural duress. The faculty is apathetic, singed under the press of constant drudgery. The students are frequently verbally abusive and semi-incoherent using a blunt and primal rap-speak. Night after night, Henry returns on a city bus, his face a sliver of white chalk, his eyes, a pair of melancholic black commas that hover, rise and sink with emotion. Oppressed and repressed by the memories of his mother, while visiting his grandpa in the hospital, Henry feels compelled to masochistically limit himself.

As dauntingly downbeat as the film's narrative appears this isn't exactly a depressive film. Kaye intersperses the existential environment of a classroom with lively animated chalkboard doodles which create a thoughtful fusion of "Sesame Street" and Schopenhauer, given the fact that Henry leads a life of disciplined asceticism, despite smoking like a chimney. You never get the feeling that Henry is a hopeless character. He helps others not because he has to, but because he merely acts in accord with his spirit. There is a passivity about him that never wanes. 

A highlight is newcomer Sami Gayle as Erica, a young homeless teen who restores some nurturing fire in Henry. There have been many Erica characters on film, but Gayle's glibness highlights Brody's passive weariness and gives their coupling some real  platonic electricity.

James Caan plays a substitute dean who looks like a car salesman. Although his first appearance is a cartoon, he gradually gives some weight and irreverence to what could have been an uninteresting role. Caan's analysis of rap music is not to be missed.

The principal, well played by Marcia Gay Harden, seems the only unsympathetic character as she is often bitter and hissy. 

The aim of  "Detachment" may well be philosophic rather than fanciful, but it still contains its share of Gothicism, and it is never out of place. Wait for the deserted classrooms or the singular chocolate cupcake iced with a vanilla frown. The film doesn't  highlight Sturm und Drang spooks; it simply makes a point that in today's world, in pop-culture and beyond, the Goth condition is not buried underground, but above our green lawns for all to see.

"Detachment"  is no fright-fest and shouldn't scare you away. Overall, it is a thoughtful character study, brought to a  complete whole in no small way by Adrien Brody, who may well have the best victimized visage in all of Hollywood. His recitation of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is by itself, worth the price of admission.

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