The Apocalypse Now of high-school movies, Tony Kaye’s nerve-scraping odyssey Detachment follows Adrien Brody’s substitute teacher into the ninth circle of public education. Kaye, the self-immolating auteur of American History X and Lake Of Fire, opens the film with a quote from Albert Camus, and in spite of the film’s gritty veneer, he’s less interested in the practical aspects of classroom-wrangling than in the existential clash between being and nothingness, within Brody’s character and without.
Detachment corrals an impressive cast to fill out the school’s faculty, although few actors have a chance to develop their characters beyond a single high-pitched confrontation. James Caan whips out a photo of an infected, oozing vagina to dissuade a female student from going braless, while Tim Blake Nelson seems as if he’s one disobedient student away from scaling a clock tower and opening fire.
Brody keeps up a stoic front. When a male student tries to provoke a physical confrontation by throwing Brody’s briefcase across the room, he responds without flinching, “That bag doesn’t have any feelings you can hurt. And neither do I.” Scenes at the hospital bed of Brody’s convalescing grandfather and grainy flashbacks to his turbulent childhood make plain that he’s harboring deep-seated hurt, but he saves emotions for the bus ride home, which is where he meets battered teen prostitute Sami Gayle. Kaye frequently flirts with familiar tropes, but here, he takes them in a loving embrace, betraying a rank sentimentality the film otherwise avoids.
Detachment’s string of sensational episodes—one moment, a female student is threatening Christina Hendricks with gang rape; the next, a blank-eyed boy is mutilating a kitten while his peers look on—approaches a kind of hallucinatory hysteria, a prolonged shriek of smash cuts and shifting film stock. Brody, at least, is allowed some modulation, bringing credibility to scenes that often don’t deserve it and making the film watchable even at its most absurd extremes. For all its untrammeled excesses—and Kaye has proved that he’d sooner torpedo his own career than accept a little constructive trammeling—Detachment is almost forcibly moving, body-slamming its audience into submission. It’s impossible not to feel something, if only the bruises his elbow leaves on your ribs.