Note: I might be reviewing this movie again at some point. The following review can be considered specifically a festival review, with a potential “full” review to come when I’ve seen the film again. My first screening was missing audio from the center channel, rendering much of the dialogue more difficult to hear than necessary. Also there’s no way I can articulate my exactly feeling on this film without a second viewing, because Detention proudly earns my favorite adejective: this film is holyshit.
Detention may very well be completely brilliant. It’s the second feature film from Joseph Kahn, who directed another infamously brilliant film, Torque. But if Detention is brilliant, it is not Torque brilliant- it is some other kind of mad genius entirely. It has much more in common with the work of European avant-garde auteurs trying to break our very perception of cinema itself in twain than it does with enthusiastically retarded action films. As I was trying to conceive of a way to communicate some understanding of exactly what Detention is like to people after seeing it, I kept coming back around to explanations and equations that referenced a dozen other films, making me feel guilty. Then I realized that a film whose every molecule is built from other films, music, and cultural references can only be communicated with that language. So this is what I came up with…
Or something like that.
Detention has managed to break a few records as far as I’m aware, first taking away the crown from the collective works of Neveldine + Taylor for a film that from frame A to frame Z never ever stops. Imbued with a profoundly manic energy, the film moves at a constant pace and is as relentless as a follower-filled twitter stream after a natural disaster, or the frantic text message exchange of a dozen excited teenagers. Considering Kahn’s background, it should comes as no shock that he demands the same speed of visual processing from his audience that one would typically reserve for the latest chart-topping music video. Hell, the film even breaks out into a couple. Despite the unendingly hypersonic narrative pace, the characters that matter still carve out consistent arcs, and the strong performances from the young cast shine through.
This might be a good time to at least try and sum up the plot. Riley is the awkward girl at school, and when a masked killer starts emulating a movie murder, she gets wrapped up in the drama of much of the school’s prominent jocks and nerds. That drama includes time-travel, world-destruction schemes, aliens, a bear, flashbacks, body exchange, and Dane Cook. The film is a comedy, a high school drama, a slasher film, and a science fiction piece… anarchic as that may all sound, there is a plot, set-up is paid off, and pieces do all fall into place eventually. Of course, to understand every bit of motivation and sequencing you’ll quite likely have to revisit it a dozen times before you’ll be able to make the trendy plot-mapping infographic that will go viral if this movie is successful. This may be a barrier for some, but Primer is one of my favorite films, so it’s something I could roll with. The emotional and verbal momentum of the movie will take any willing viewer through to the end though, whether they connect every dot or not.
So let’s get back to that whole “brilliant” thing. What makes this film so special is that it manages to almost perfectly capture the nature of culture and the current generation’s experience of it, as it stands right now. First of all, it can not be exaggerated how utterly and completely built out of film, tv, music, and pop culture references this film is. It’s so densely packed with allusions that make up the dialogue, costuming, diegetic and non-diegetic music, plot, effects, locations, and set dressing that it is something of a cinematic version of one of those posters crammed with visual interpretations of movie titles, or songs, or internet memes, or whatever. The dedication to these references takes that characteristic of the film far past the “look at me and how clever I am” plateau, into some other paradigm entirely. Unlike Edgar Wright or Quentin Tarantino, who take their targeted genres and break them down into leg0-sized chunks with and on which they build their own aesthetic visions, Joseph Kahn and co-writer Mark Palermo have gone to a place where all American music, film, and TV from the last 30 years has been broken down at a quantum scale, with Detention built atom by atom from the pieces.
Contained within that structure is a commentary on the pace of communication between teenagers, social hierarchy in high-school, parent/child relationships, and themes that range from jealousy to maturation to general fear of the unknown. Hell, I’d even say Detention may be one of the most effective examinations of the way culture is currently manufactured and cyclically reprocessed yet made, doing so by recursively mixing fashions and time-lines over the course of the film in a way that seems like a macrocosmic re-staging of our current viral culture model. Pile that on top of the meta-textual engineering of the film itself and there is a lot to be mined from what would typically be a silly little high school spoof with lots of movie jokes.
Impressively, a low-budget doesn’t preclude the film from looking great and feeling as slick and polished as it should, considering the ultra-polished pop culture output to which it’s so often alluding. And while there is certainly the presence of some CGI, it really only appears when nothing else would achieve the effect, and is mixed in with a ton of wonderful practical effects; gore, stunt, and otherwise. This is a big sigh of relief, as much of Torque and many of his music video might lead one to think Kahn’s gift of kineticism is born purely out of the ability to move the camera anywhere he pleases in a computer. Thankfully he’s able to achieve the same dynamic range of camera movement with good old fashioned real-life rigs, and his style is better served for it. His unbeatable music industry connections means the soundtrack is filled with songs that would have bankrupted even the largest blockbuster from any other director, lending all of this madness the cultural legitimacy it needs to function properly.
There’s more to say about the themes and possible meta-textual readings of the film, or about other random trivia (Dane Cook is funny in it!), but I’ll leave it here for the time being. For now know that if you have any tolerance for aggressive cinema, and any interest in a kaleidoscopic –and shockingly transgressive– view of teen culture, you want to see this movie. It will be divisive, and those that hate it will really hate it, but I have no doubt that in time a select number of people will see how inspired Detention really is. Those people are going to have a fucking blast.
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