Sure to be one of the years most polarizing releases, Joseph Kahn’s "Detention" is an all-out attack on the senses; a nonstop barrage of on-screen text, pop references, and surrealist indulgences sure to alienate just as many viewers as it entrances.
Entirely satisfied with itself, overly reliant on digital effects, and totally content making random in-jokes that will fly over the head of the majority of the audience (at one point it name checks "Torque", a quickly forgotten motorcycle movie that is - surprise! - the only other film ever directed by Kahn,) "Detention" is sure to infuriate those with a purist’s view towards the cinema. But for those who can admire a film that challenges the normal form of movies (in spite of some truly idiotic and self-indulgent passages,) Kahn’s film is sure to inspire as much excitement as it does scorn.
Doubling as a satire of both slasher films and the high school genre (think "Halloween" meets "Weird Science"), "Detention" features a plot so insane and inane that to recount it on paper would only serve to make the film look more interesting than it is. You have a hipster big-man-on-campus played by actor/producer Josh Hutcherson, a scarred-up principal-with-a-past played by an annoyingly reserved Dane Cook, a time traveling stuffed bear, a serial killer named Cinderhella, a "Freaky Friday"-esque body-switching subplot, and much more. Kahn jumps from scene-to-scene, plot-to-plot, but what’s interesting here is neither the teenage melodrama nor the grisly violence.
Kahn’s aim isn’t cohesiveness nor is it the study of a specific theme: he’s just jumping from one genre convention to another, shifting the movie moment-by-moment to allow him to talk about whatever pop culture nonsense he wants, or to indulge any stylistic flourish he can think of. Take the first 20 minutes - taking a page out of the "Scream" playbook, he sets up a grisly scene that sets up a potential main character - and then murders her to the seeming surprise of the audience.
But the gold here isn’t the twist, it’s the insane amount of on-screen text and information ’flashes’ Kahn uses to drive the scene - enough to put "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" to shame. Here Kahn is using the character set-up simply as an exercise to display just how much information he can convey through editing - and considering modern audiences obsession with texting, Twitter, and all such communication, I wouldn’t be shocked if this ’data overload’ is how all movies look a couple decades from now.
There are scenes here that display a control of craft at the highest level, and some of them are smart to boot - one sequence, where Kahn satirizes the changing styles of high school students through a 360 degree pan that brings us from 2012 all the way to the early 90s (documenting every fashion trend in between) isn’t just hilarious, but totally spot-on. But for every sequence like that, you have a totally pointless scene (sometimes even incompetent, such as one failed attempt at suicide humor, or many of the elongated ’classroom discussion’ sequences) that leaves the audience scratching their heads and staring in disbelief for no reason other than to allow Kahn to work in a "nuke the fridge" joke to please all the geeks in the audience.
I see what he’s going for here - a fever dream high school movie, jumping from genre-to-genre and from one tone to another at will, driven on by nothing more than the filmmaker’s ID. But "Detention" just doesn’t take it’s own insanity far enough - the abundance of on-screen text shrivels up, and the visual style (everything is lit and rendered gorgeously for the 2.35:1 frame - honestly, this film looks really good compared to most independent American comedies) slows from manic to complacent in the middle sections. You’re left with a film of great moments rather than a great film.
Because it’s the ideas here that work, not so much the humor. Hutcherson and Cook deadpan every line; as if they didn’t even understand the film they are acting in. No one seems to know how to play the horror subplot - some actors handle it with camp, others with a straight face, and even others with a sense of the overly theatrical. There’s too much going on here, and while the narrative wraps up tightly by the conclusion, you’re left wondering if there was any point to all the diversions (comparisons to Gregg Araki’s college-horror film "Kaboom" are sure to be made, and rightfully so). Kahn clearly has an audacity within him - it’s just a shame neither his actors nor his script can match his best moments of invention.