Back in the 1990s, Tony Kaye seemed destined for great things. After cutting his teeth on a series of award-winning music videos including “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum, Kaye took the step up to the big leagues and signed on to direct American History X, a film that humanised a pair of skinheads and blamed American middle-class culture for their descent into violent racism. However, while the film’s power and insight have become only more evident with the passage of time, American History X very nearly ended Kaye’s career as the studio’s indifference to his first cut lead to a very public PR battle in which Kaye bemoaned his treatment in a series of full-page adverts in the Hollywood press. His reputation effectively ruined, Kaye returned to music videos until his 2006 abortion documentary Lake of Fire paved the way for another shot at feature-length cinematic narratives. Like American History X and Kaye himself, Detachment is an unsettling and ambiguous film that assaults contemporary morals with a fury so intense, grandiose and ill-disciplined that it feels less like an argument for or against something than it does a howl of rage at the universe itself.
Much of the critical indifference to Detachment can be explained by its initial similarity to both John N. Smith’s Dangerous Minds and Ramon Menendez’s Stand and Deliver. However, despite telling of a new teacher arriving in a failing inner city school, Detachment is neither a critique of the American school system nor a heart-warming tale of academic triumph over economic adversity. Instead, Detachment picks a fight with the human condition itself.
Kaye presents human society as a vast ocean of negative feelings: Parents dump on their kids, kids dump on their teachers, teachers dump back on the kids, kids dump on parents, parents dump on teachers. In this world, misery and hate flow like tides that lift all boats and drown all sailors.
In the middle of this vast ocean stands the figure of Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), a supply teacher whose lack of friends and steady employment mean that he is forever on the outside of social systems looking in. Indeed, when Barthes first steps into a classroom, his ability to absorb vast amounts of abuse lends him an almost messianic demeanour: as Barthes himself puts it… it simply does not matter what you say to him.
By refusing to acknowledge the tide of human misery that surrounds him, Barthes effectively turns himself into an island of emotional stability. When a troubled child prostitute (Sami Gayle) follows him home, the anger and depravity (literally) dripping from the girl’s lips do not affect him… he simply offers her a place to sleep because she’s a kid with no place else to go. Similarly, when confronted with the artistic musings of a troubled teenager (Betty Kaye), Barthes maintains enough of his humanity to smile, nod and encourage where others dismiss and mock.
Much of the film is devoted to the slow unpacking of Barthes’ personality as early scenes suggest that despite his apparent patience and forgiveness, he is not above letting people have it when they rub up against him in the wrong way. Barthes is not a saint but a human… a human who chose to become detached from others as a means of protecting himself. The only problem is that, in order to protect himself from negative emotions, Barthes must also protect himself from positive emotions and so he struggles with the responsibilities inherent in human relationships. The two young women Barthes meets need him to be there for them but in order to be there, Barthes must cease to be detached and this is something he cannot do. Kaye and Brody perfectly capture Barthes’ blockage when Barthes is found in a compromising position with an overly affectionate student… Barthes’ rage at the implication that he might have touched a student has nothing to do with sexual assault and everything to do with the suggestion of emotional availability. How dare they suggest that he cared!
When I say that Detachment picks a fight with human nature, I mean that Kaye sets out to critique the vision of human nature that has underpinned much of Western culture. Traceable back to Aristotle as well as Freud and Hippocrates, this vision of human nature presents the human mind as a hydraulic system under pressure. When events conspire to create a build-up of negative emotions within the system, this model suggests that it is necessary to vent negative emotions lest they build-up to the point where they cause some sort of emotional collapse. The process of releasing excess negative emotions in a safe manner is referred to as catharsis. Kaye explicitly alludes to this vision of human nature by having Detachment end on the decidedly traditional note of having Barthes resolve his emotional blockage and return to a state of psychological normality in which he is free to live, love and presumably react aggressively to anyone who looks at him sideways.
The characters in Detachment give their emotions a complete free-reign because they believe that ‘venting’ will make them feel better but in truth all their emotional incontinence accomplishes is to legitimise the use of aggressive and threatening behaviour and create yet more bad feeling that will inevitably wind up destroying the day of some innocent third party. As this Penn and Teller video suggests, venting does not so much diffuse anger as keep it present in the mind, making it that much more likely that a person will react to a problem with anger and aggression:
As brilliant as Detachment is at capturing the horrors of a world in which nobody tries to controls their feelings, its greatest insight lies buried in the ambiguity of its ending. Detachment suggests that while it may be possible to free ourselves from the oceans of rage and misery surrounding us, this emotional distancing comes only at the price of our relationships with other humans. For Kaye, the problems of the world are not due to decaying schools; corrupt educational institutions and poorly raised children but our own flawed ideas about how to feel and how to react to those feelings. Barthes’ emotional detachment lends him an almost messianic character as he just absorbs insults and anger only to turn the other cheek and act like a decent person. However, despite Barthes’ actions having a tangible and positive impact on the world around him and despite his being considerably more psychologically stable than most of the people he meets, Barthes ends the film by embracing a decidedly bourgeois ideal of emotional availability. The thematic tension between Kaye’s depiction of an emotionally incontinent world and his decision to end the film on a note of bourgeois normality further highlights the absolute perversity of human nature: Not only do we marinade ourselves in pools of useless emotion, we complain when people refuse to jump in and join us.
Western culture’s growing intolerance of emotional restraint also lies at the heart of Stephen Frears’ The Queen in which the British people become so enraged by the royal family’s emotional detachment that they begin to question the monarchy until Tony Blair turns up and teaches them how to express emotion and thus how to be properly human:
This vision of the British family as a group of emotionally constipated dinosaurs is even more evident in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. Unlike The Queen, which presented the royal family’s emotional restraint as a problem of public perception, Hooper’s film actively pathologises emotional restraint and suggests that George VI’s speech impediment was a direct result of his emotionally restrained upbringing:
In both cases, inhuman aristocrats find themselves having to deal with normal humans and so turn to members of the bourgeoisie in order to overcome their problems and learn to be properly human. It is the ethical aspect of this dynamic that Kaye is attempting to critique: Why is Barthes’ detachment problematic? Why does the story demand that he have a breakthrough and join us in the anger pool? These questions cut to the heart of our culture’s psychological and moral ideals and dare to suggest that there might be a better way.