Sean K. Cureton

21st Century X

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on February 28, 2015 at 12:46 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Detachment (2011)
Directed by Tony Kaye
Netflix Rating: Loved It

Tony Kaye’s Detachment is like his feature film debut American History X in its bleak depiction of America’s youth, trapped within a bureaucracy of public education causing them to lash out in acts of cruelty and malice systemic of the failures of government sanctioned institutionalization, knowledge and empathy replaced by ignorance and competition. Indicative of Kaye’s characteristic dissatisfaction for the culturally degenerative firmament of America in the twenty-first century, Detachment examines the failures of our country’s high schools, depicting the role of the teacher as more of a warden and jailor than educator and counselor, Kaye’s chosen subjects down trodden civil servants held back by the anger of their students and the economic strictures of the nation’s poorest and most racially volatile residential districts. In Adrien Brody’s Henry Barthes, the viewer is afforded a veritable reincarnation of Kaye’s previous protagonist, Edward Norton’s Neo-Nazi turned social activist Derek Vinyard, Barthes’ internalized rage quelled by a poetic soul, erupting in fits of isolated panic when provoked by the very worst of society’s machinations of arbitrary law and order. Like American History X, Detachment is nearly suffocating in its dark, dramatic tone, the dour halls and classrooms of Kaye’s public high school lending an impenetrability to the characters within, the torch of enlightenment left unattended, leaving a whole generation of children scrabbling in the dark, capitalistic antagonism affording only the meager light of a single lit match. Where Kaye’s feature film debut found him investigating racial prejudice and violence in Southern California at the dawn of the twenty-first century, his fourth film finds him interrogating the survivors of his prior social apocalypse, his public educators tied down by the ego of discontentment engendered by the detachment of racism that has continued to course through the American subconscious in the proceeding ten years.

As a successor to what is possibly the greatest social drama of our time, Detachment is comparatively engaged in a discussion largely pre-determined, Kaye’s rhetorical flourishes on the importance of an ever diminishing liberal education heavy handed, but restrained by the subtleties afforded in Carl Lund’s script and via the deft performances of the film’s exceptional cast. If Kaye is a director’s director, than his oeuvre is perhaps most marked by its unrelenting authorial style, Kaye’s films less about interpretation than they are about elicited reaction, his films provocative in their engagement with topics already laden with a socially pre-conditioned response. And Detachment is no exception, decidedly brutal and effectively moving, Kaye’s dissatisfaction echoing our own resentment towards an ingrained cultural disengagement, America in the twenty-first century remarkably insincere and prone to satire, but without the knowledge of where that insincerity and ridicule stems from, causing further civil division and turmoil. While some might find Kaye’s stubborn cynicism exhausting, and American History X is nothing if not unmistakably critical, Detachment possesses an empathy for its characters that proves optimistic, even if the battles waged don’t always culminate in success. While the film’s conclusion leaves its characters in much the same quandary in which it finds them, Kaye’s direction imbues a familiarity that proves empathetic and diagnostic of the lack of concern in public education in America at large, any solution dependent on our response to the film’s comprehensively informed satire.

In Henry Barthes, Kaye has seemingly distilled the spirit of Derek Vinyard to his bare essentials, the anger of an upbringing found lacking in proper emotional support and economic stability fostering an adult lacking in social grace, the torments of his past informing his impersonally detached nature in the present. While Henry undoubtedly cares deeply for his fellow teachers and students, his status as a long-term substitute teacher enables him to leave before becoming too emotionally attached to any one school district, classroom, or student body, constant motion and change negating the effects of what is a meager and hard earned existence. Like his students, Henry feels the undercurrents of oppression surging forth as anger, a socially propagated affliction of a culture in a state of arrested development engendered by the very lack of education that Henry is actively engaged in instilling into a stagnant national intellect. When Henry says that he understands that his students are angry, or when he takes in a young prostitute off the streets out of sincere charity, his own intelligence is temporarily lent to an American youth emotionally and mentally abandoned, the public schools little more than police states, the children put under their care abused, neglected, and ignored. In Kaye’s film, all of his characters are dissimilarly detached, their very inability to connect with one another ironically communal, if only they could reach out and see one another’s shared pain in order to transcend the culturally regressive traits that have kept them deaf, dumb, and blind to organized civic action.

Perhaps the most pervasive aspect of Detachment comes in its ability to articulate the incoherence of teenage angst as a symptom of an ever ephemeral maturity, proffered as a possibility, but with no clear social avenues by which to reach it. If Henry Barthes serves as any indication, adulthood carries the baggage of adolescence around with it, our formative years spent in the American public education system alternatively deleterious or transformative to our own intellectual and emotional growth, our nation’s teachers the first line of defense against the violence of racism and social prejudice, so long as we give them the freedom of authority to educate. Without the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, pure and corrupt, Kaye’s film serves as evidence to make it unmistakably clear that the civil turmoil depicted in his American History X will continue, anger the physical manifestation of psychological neglect. It’s impossible to come away from any film directed by Tony Kaye in an apathetic manner, his film’s provocations immediately familiar in their sources of criticism and indictment, his resentment echoing our own subconsciously felt grievances, and informing our consciously espoused complaints. As a social activist, there is no director currently making films quiet as effective in eliciting a volatile response from the tacitly disengaged masses, and Detachment, the spiritual successor to his masterful American History X, is perhaps his greatest achievement yet, diagnostic of the social ills that stem from a lack of a proper public education system, else we remain in a culture divided by the color of our skin and the size of our respective bank accounts.

Detachment is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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