Detachment is a movie about school, so it’s made out for me, obviously. It made me very angry. The movie is directed by (yeah, yeah, "the infamous") Tony Kaye and I would put most of the blame for the failure of the movie on him, especially since he is his own cinematographer. I’m not sure if the script could have been filmed better (as Bryan Cranston claims, who has the most unnecessary role in the movie, so the feelings might be mutual), but the direction seems totally misguided. But even apart from that, the movie is full of clichés and school tropes, thereby neglecting its own purpose of trying to show what school is like. The great actors are mostly wasted. Yes, Adrien Brody is great, they’re all great, but why have some big names in the credits only to make them say one or two lines? The editing is sometimes off (look at the first principal scene) and the camera work is pretentious. But the biggest problem I have with the movie is the message it sends and the contradictions it gets caught up in. A movie doesn’t make me angry often, so I want to dive into why in more detail.
The movie makes me angry for six reasons: 1) it wastes its potential of good actors and an interesting premise for cheap drama, 2) it only pretends to both show the problems of school and some ways to solve them, 3) it constantly portrays teachers as victims and doesn’t take the students seriously, but pretends it does, 4) it portrays almost all of the students as stupid, violent, aggressive and mean, 5) it endlessly goes for extremes instead of subtlety, 6) it never asks why about anything, it just shows misery on all sides.
Let’s walk through the movie. Our protagonist is Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody, really good), a substitute teacher starting at another school. Because he is the protagonist and the way the movie introduces him, it is clear that we are supposed to think that he is different, a good teacher, which is a great and ambitious goal because we need more John Keatings in our movies. But the movie fails in the way it shows his teaching. During his first lesson, he tells them he only has one rule: “If you don’t wish to be here, don’t come.” Realistically, the kids laugh and one obnoxious kid (out of many, many obnoxious kids in this movie) is basically thrown out by Barthes. That’s it. No one else wants to go, no one asks about it. From personal experience, I know how these things go, but the movie doesn't care about realism, only about grand gestures that ring false. Barthes then gives them an assignment, which is to write their own eulogy, which must be the worst idea for a first lesson I can imagine. Not here, the students all start writing, as if it wasn’t one of the most personal and difficult assignments they could get. One student breaks out, extremely aggressive asking for a piece of paper, throwing Barthes’s bag around. Barthes stays cool, explaining that he has no feelings the kid can hurt, that he understands his anger and that he wants to help him. Done. The student sits back down. Here’s where you can see the movie’s failure. It only has one agenda: to show Barthes is a good teacher. But he doesn’t do anything. He talks to the kid and tries to take him seriously, but without real insight. He never tells the kid why he understands his anger. It only works because the movie needs it to work.
The movie is intercut with monologues Barthes gives directly to the camera and after the described scene, he says the following:
Kids don’t have any attention span. They’re bored. So how are you supposed to reel them in with classic literature if they don’t believe that you have something meaningful to share?
He’s right, but a) he basically puts the blame on the kids and b) we never really see him share anything meaningful, except for one time, which we’ll get to in a second. The movie never asks why they’re bored or if classic literature can be an answer. A couple of scenes later we see him read out loud the essays the students have written (terrible idea again). He makes fun of the first one instead of discussing it seriously and he doesn’t comment on the second that deals with suicide. I’m sorry, that’s not good teaching. He does explain that he tries not to commit and that he is detached (that title haunts every scene in the movie, leading only to the audience being detached, because again, no one asks why), but then why should we believe that all the students like him?
Then there is the only real lesson we see him give. He writes three words on the board and asks if anyone knows what they mean (assimilate, ubiquitous, doublethink). He summarizes: “To deliberately believe in lies while knowing they’re false.” What a perfect start! Sounds like a lesson I’d give. What does he do with that concept? He holds a monologue telling the students what he thinks, using expressions like “marketing holocaust.” During his speech, we see the faces of the students, obviously impressed and deep in thought. This. is. not. how. it. works. First of all, if you intend to make your students think about those things (which is my main mission as a teacher), you have to bring them in for it. You can’t just tell them what they’re supposed to think. Right before that scene we see Barthes observing another teacher (William Petersen, completely wasted) showing Hitler movies to his class. Does the movie insinuate that this teacher is a fan of Hitler? I think it does. But Barthes is just doing his propaganda, too. I agree with what he says and I’m sure many students would agree, too, but he doesn’t care what they think. This scene is very troubling because it’s the only time where we really see how he does things differently, but it’s so ill-advised.
I know we’re supposed to learn that Barthes is a flawed character too, through the sub-plot with his grandfather and the flashbacks of his mother’s death. But it really seems like asking for pity, while never making clear that he in fact does not do his job very well. He doesn’t seem to notice Meredith’s (Betty Kaye) obvious affection for him and when she comes to him and gives him a picture she made just for him, he gets up and stands really close to her, asking “Do you need someone to talk to?” He so clearly gives her false hopes here and his surprise when she cries and wants to hug him, proves that even more. Again, we hear his self-doubts, but does the movie really admit those flaws, this inability to see what other people need?
I don’t think so. In fact, the movie completely throws all of that out of the window in the scene where Barthes says goodbye to his students. It’s his last day, after a month, and his students are devastated and make clear that he’s the best. But the movie does not show us how he got there. He does not deserve this treatment from his students, as far as we can tell. It’s just a cop-out because that’s what we are suppsoed to expect. He’s the cool teacher and everyone thinks so. Maybe it shows how difficult it seems to be to be a special or different teacher, but if you want to depict someone like that, you should know how it works.
In one of his last monologues, Barthes says
We have such a responsibility to guide our young, so that they don’t end up falling apart, falling by the wayside, becoming insignificant.
But the movie is cheating again, because while Barthes is totally right, the movie proves him wrong. Throughout the movie we only meet students who are horrible, every teacher’s nightmare, loud, hostile, indifferent. They are never shown in a positive light and the only real exception is Meredith, fulfilling the cliché of being interesting because she is creative and interested, but bullied by her classmates. Her suicide is nothing but a shot at drama and when compared with the similar moment in Dead Poets Society, it shows all the problems this movie has and Society doesn’t. At the same time, the teachers are portrayed as the victims. The principal (Marcia Gay Harden) has good intentions, but is mistreated by the government (and her husband). Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks) is supposedly a good teacher (we never really see why), but is spit upon and screamed at by students and their parents. Mr. Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) is obviously not a good teacher, but the movie does nothing but portraying him as a pitiful guy who doesn’t get any respect. The school therapist (Lucy Liu) is also the victim of stupid and indifferent students, although she doesn’t know how to talk to them. And the students beat each other up, they are sluts, they kill animals for fun. Again, this devalues everything the movie supposedly is trying to say about teachers and students, responsibility and society.
Yes, our society makes most of us detached from our emotions. Yes, the school system is inherently flawed and doesn’t make it easy for either students or teachers to do anything useful. Yes, it’s tough to deal with difficult students and obnoxious parents. But Detachment doesn’t achieve anything else but showing those problems in an exaggerated way without offering any solutions. The intentions are there and in some moments they glimpse through, showing the possibility of a much better movie. But Detachment is not that movie.