In the past year, I have attained a strong appreciation for short films, partly due to my recent experience working with the local film festival. Thus, when this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced, I found myself—for the very first time—intrigued by the occupants of the “Best Live-Action Short Film” category. A standout among the nominees was Vincent’s Lambe’s “Detainment.” My interest in watching this film, however, stemmed not only from its stellar critical reception among film-festival screeners, but mainly from the controversy and outright uproar surrounding this production. The effect of this film, which in my opinion explores the absolute lowest and most disturbing point that humanity can reach, grows ever more gnawing and pervasive when one discovers that “Detainment” contains, allegedly, not a grain of embellishment, exaggeration, or dramatic license in it.
More experienced readers of this review are likely to remember a shocking incident that occurred in England in 1993: that is, the murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two young boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. My brief research into this incident disturbed me deeply and I chose to spare readers from the graphic detail that I discovered and will never escape. Suffice it to say that Bulger was abducted when found momentarily unattended in a shopping-mall, tortured, toyed with, and ultimately murdered by the two boys for apparently no reason. If you require further warning, know that, according to one of the film’s closing title cards, the interview tapes between police and the two boys were “deemed too distressing to be played in court” and four tapes were even withheld from the jury that found the boys guilty.
“Detainment” provides further detail on the specifics that I dare not elaborate on. However—to its credit—the film does not rely on grotesque imagery, nor does it employ any other type of shock value in its attempt to portray this disheartening violence. The plot begins after the incident and, except for a few brief flashbacks to the day of the incident, focuses on the interviews that took place while the boys were in police custody—hence the movie’s title.
What makes this film disturbing is mainly the acting. The actors playing the two boys boast haunting performances that may stay with you long after the movie’s 30-minute runtime is over. For instance, one of the two boys is portrayed as a sociopath, and it is obvious from the acting that when he tries to cry about Bulger’ fate, the tears are forced. Furthermore, the actors who portray the two boys’ parents represent some of the most distraught presences that I have ever seen on screen. The writing, too, adds to the disturbing effect of the film by carefully choosing what parts to elaborate on and which ones to imply. Thus, the screenplay allows the audience’s imagination to piece together what was done to Bulger; bad things only become worse when uncertainty is thrown into the mix.
I do not believe that the film’s use of other cinematic elements is worth discussing very much. The cinematography, sound design and other such things are done conventionally; nothing wrong with them, but nothing noteworthy either. The only aesthetic element of the film that bothered me was some on the editing—specifically some transitions—during the flashback sequences. Those parts took the “flash” in flashback a bit too seriously, and the result looks somewhat cheap.
As I mentioned above, “Detainment” has received positive critical feedback and is in the race for the “Best Live-Action Short Film” Oscar award. There is one person, however, who is deeply unhappy about the film’s production, and with its inclusion in the Academy Awards — Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus. “I tried to put it behind me, I’ve got through all these years, to see that still [image] of him being led to his death by those two… And now it’s being shown again?” says Fergus to BBC News.
The same news outlet also states that Fergus was never consulted about making the movie and she was not aware of the production until after it was complete. She states that if Lambe had approached her, she would have agreed to make the film, but in “a different way.” On a less plausible note, she also questioned the treatment of the actors who portrayed the two killers. “It’s bad enough for them to have to go through the lines. I’m hoping for the two children, the actors, that there’s a duty of care for them, the scenes they had to re-enact were quite horrific.” Although this specific criticism is—in my opinion—a bit of a stretch (considering that child-actors are, after all, actors), it is completely understandable that Fergus feels the way she does, considering what she went through and still does.
What best illustrates Fergus’ anger with the way “Detainment” handled her son’s death is her petition to withdraw the film from the Oscar race. BBC News reports that, so far, over 100,000 people have signed the petition. However, writer-director Lambe refused to withdraw his film from the Oscar race, although he says that “with hindsight, [he is] sorry [he] didn’t make Mrs. Fergus aware of the film.” “The film was not made for financial gain and nobody involved in the making of the film intends to profit from it,” says Lambe to BBC News; withdrawing the film “would defeat the purpose of making the film,” because “we have the responsibility to try and make sense of what happened.”
The conversation that the backlash to “Detainment” has kick-started fits neatly into a broader discussion about the arts, a conversation that interests me much. I am and will be a believer in that, in art, there exist no bad ideas, only bad executions (and, in my opinion, “Detainment” takes an unusually sensitive and considerate approach to Bulger’s murder). In short, you can make art out of anything, and making the artistic landscape anything less than the land of do-as-you-please defeats the purpose of art and may easily lead to censorship and other such hateful things. However, when dramatizing a real-life event, especially one that permanently scarred real-life people, care must be taken in the portrayal,and the least that can be done is to inform said people that the artwork (in this case a movie) is being created. They are, after all, the most affected by the event.
So, we are now left with vital questions about artistic ethics: Should participants of real-life events be consulted before that event is adapted into film? Must those people then have a say in the film’s direction? Will those people’s recommendations represent the event in the most accurate way, or will they twist the narrative (if only accidentally) into how they want it portrayed? How much time must pass before portraying a real-life tragedy on film? What perspective should be prioritized when portraying tragedies? What is the place of film festivals and award ceremonies in this discussion? The list goes on, and there are no easy answers.
Ultimately, “Detainment” is a well-made film. Nonetheless, I would have an incredibly difficult time looking someone in the eyes and recommending that they watch this heavy, unsettling film—and perhaps, that is reason enough to recommend it.
Christoforos Sassaris is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in computer science and creative writing. PS868710@wcupa.edu