I was a substitute teacher for two years. If that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to be treated for serial masochism, consider this: I was a substitute teacher at three schools, and two of them were the elementary school and the high school that I attended as a student. The third, situated in a slightly better-off nook of the rural fringe (at least until Hurricane Irene) where I live in upstate New York, had been my high school’s perennial rival. My old school district still employed teachers with whom I’d taken classes as a child; now we were colleagues. Nobody at the Other School cared for me much.
Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody in Tony Kaye’s Detachment, reflects the characteristics I tried to embody during my stint as a sub — namely, a genuine empathy for students and a desire to put time and care into teaching them something that would stick. Barthes, despite working a job in which everything is temporary — school, class, relationships with coworkers, bonds with students — takes his duties seriously and delivers lessons (which seem to be completely of his own invention, not from any curriculum I might recognize) with vigor. When Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks), a fellow teacher, asks why he doesn’t become a real teacher, Barthes responds, “I teach every day. What do you mean?”
Detachment is an engrossing, occasionally heavy-handed (mainly when it slaps us with quotes from Albert Camus and Edgar Allen Poe), character-driven story that follows Barthes through three weeks of personal and professional trials. He has begun subbing at an urban school with a decaying administration, exhausted teachers, and students who threaten him within five minutes of his first class. He frequently visits his grandfather (Louis Zorich), who lives in a care facility, his memory and life-force slowly fading. He also meets Erica (Sami Gayle), a sixteen-year-old prostitute who roams the bus route near Barthes’ small apartment. After witnessing her physical abuse at the hands of a repulsive customer, Barthes decides to let her stay with him for a while. The ephemeral nature of everything in Barthes’ life is immediately evident: these are all temporary situations. Eventually, he will have to move on to a new school. His grandfather will die. Erica will have to move out. His reasons for embracing this lack of commitment, whether consciously or unconsciously, are explored through intermittent flashbacks, which slowly unravel the fact that Barthes’ mother killed herself when he was young, and he never knew his father.
What initially enthralled me about this film is that it takes an old trope — the Man With No Name — and applies it to two characters, then forces them to spend time together. Barthes is stoic and ashen for nearly the entire film, maintaining “I have no feelings you can hurt” and that “I’m a non-person. You can see me, but I’m hollow.” Erica comes out of nowhere, materializing on the bus as Barthes cries in his seat. According to the formula, familiar to us from the old Westerns like Shane, the Man (or Woman) With No Name appears abruptly “just passing through;” (s)he gets involved in other people’s business, solves a core problem or provides the necessary tools with which to solve it, then disappears, never to be seen again. This is the myth Barthes wants to claim for himself. He says he has no feelings yet he’s vulnerable, prone to quick anger and deep sadness at matters over which he has no control. His job allows him to show up, have an impact, then vanish. Just as he begins displaying emotion, Erica appears. Erica becomes the catalyst for Barthes’ change; they form a classic Travis-Iris Alliance and the better sides of both begin to shine through the grime of the workday.
The film features an ensemble which includes Christina Hendricks (sadly underused), James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Bryan Cranston, Blythe Danner, and Tim Blake Nelson. The teachers often appear in group scenes in which they get to kvetch about the school; these scenes, along with Barthes’ disconnected testimonials, out the film’s agenda in regard to the education system in America (and screenwriter Carl Lund’s feelings are, to say the least, not optimistic). Memorable exchanges include a harrowing scene in which Liu’s character, the school guidance counselor, finally snaps into a histrionic (yet genuine) polemic concerning the hopelessness of the students at her school — this is directed at a student, who begins to absorb the lesson, but then responds with “Fuck you” and walks out. Caan’s character, a substitute for the former dean (another temporary situation) shows students pictures of gonorrhea-infected genitals. Nelson’s character, yet another unhappy teacher, spends his breaks standing on the school’s playing field, staring at the sky. Barthes finally notices.
Barthes: You alright?
Mr Wiatt: What, you see me? You see me standing here?
Barthes: Yeah, I see you.
Mr Wiatt: Oh god. So relentless. Thank you. Thank you!
Unfortunately, we see most of these supporting characters only fleetingly with Barthes. The most developed relationship is a hackneyed attempt at romance between Barthes and Ms. Madison.
In spite of his apparent apathy, Barthes puts care into his lessons when he could just be a glorified babysitter, and we can see in his face that he wants to leave these students with something. Consider this speech from his first week teaching the new students.
“How are you to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you?” He goes on to explain doublethink: “Deliberately believing lies while knowing they are false. Examples of this in everyday life: I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I need to be thin, famous, fashionable. Our young men today are being told that women are whores, bitches, things to be screwed, beaten, shit on, shamed. This is a marketing holocaust! Twenty-four hours a day, for the rest of our lives, the powers that be are hard at work, dumbing us to death. So to defend ourselves and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read, to stimulate our own imaginations, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.”
How many of these students will learn to read, to cultivate their minds, to think independently? In this situation the moviegoer is just another temporary visitor witnessing a story that is clearly the middle of a story. If evolution begets resolution, then the end is well on its way, because there is a good amount of evolution on the part of Barthes once things begin to change (he confronts his feelings about his mother, finishes his three weeks at the new school, and makes two very substantial decisions about Erica).
In the final shots, Barthes reads aloud the opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as the school empties around him (nailing the parallel between the Usher house and family and the school). Has he let go? Will he become a real teacher? Explore a new career altogether? Has he left his fixation on the transient behind him after his experiences over the last three weeks? What’s the next step with Erica (there’s a conclusion to this story in the film, but even so there must be another step at which we can only guess)? I like that Detachment seeks to tell a human story (and tackle large social issues), dropping questions in the audience’s lap without making pretentious and unavailing stabs at final answers.
Detachment (2012); written by Carl Lund; directed by Tony Kaye; starring Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, Christina Hendricks, and James Caan.
Richard Hartshorn is a writer of contemporary literary fiction and the recipient of the 2011 Richard Bausch Short Story Prize. His work has appeared in several publications including Our Stories, The Dirty Napkin, and Hawaii Women’s Journal. He lives in New York State. He is one of the original NC contributors — see his online “diary” of the making of Wings Over Arda, a feature-length movie production of a text by J. R. R. Tolkien.