Film Review: Detachment (and Engagement)

This past weekend, for the first time in a long time, I found myself with an empty, quiet house and nothing to do. So as I examined my options (go for a run – where? go to the bookstore? there are none here in Katy; go walk the dog? too tired) once again I found it too easily to capitulate to the self-subjugation of mindless media drivel, being assailed by the mind-dumbing inanity that is the TV set and the dull corporations that run the channels under the pretense of this thing called “entertainment.” Meh.

Trapped in my own suburban nightmare, I had no choice but to watch something good; something that would nourish instead of deaden my soul. By Sunday evening I had made a good choice with Detachment.

Right from the get-go, the opening quote by existentialist Camus set the pace; so anyone expecting a feel-good movie should not watch it at all. The point of this movie is not feel-goodism, nor is it moralism, and it might not even be about the education system. For those that read some kind of political or social statement in this movie are missing the point IMO. This same story could have taken place in a police precinct, or in a bar, or at a suit-and-tie company. But what this movie is not commentating about is the school system; it just happens to take place in a school system. That is the stage of this existentialist drama about the sensation of inconsequence in the world and the impermanence of our “substitute teacher” existence. One so-called “super-reviewer” at rottentomatoes gets it all wrong when he misses the point entirely:

What could have been an honest drama feels more like an overly extreme view on the American educational system.

So while this movie didn’t necessarily make you feel good by the end, there was something deeply good about it. In a manner reminiscent of Dostoevsky‘s The Idiot, the feature character played marvelously by Brody is a pure soul, an innocent soul, almost a Christ-like figure, moving from scene to scene, touching people, being deeply touched himself, an aura of pained grace that is his burden to carry. He is powerfully moved, yet standing strong, unbroken, continually courageous. And he moves on. It is a sense of detachment that helps him to move from school to school, taking substitute teacher positions, one after the other. He is not permanent. But he does a great deal of good.

And by movie’s end, the answer is not plot resolution; nor is it synthesis of all the challenges facing the characters; rather it is the persistence of this hanging state of un-meaning and how life is just like that. How trying to understand what we’re going through requires almost a detachment to be able to grasp it all, yet emotionally, none of the characters are detached. It’s a beautiful contradiction in terms; the powerful, emotional engagement of each of the characters, yet the overall sense of detachment from a world un-controllable, un-resolvable, oftentimes inexplicable.

Published by Wayne Park

Asian-American clergyman thinking about issues of faith, place, race and culture-making in the vast city of Houston, TX

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