In Disconnect, we examine the lives of an ensemble of characters, all loosely connected through their experiences and identities on the World Wide Web.
Lonely and sensitive teen musician Ben Boyd (Jonah Bobo) finally makes a digital love connection, only to have it go tragically wrong. Grieving couple Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek Hull (Alexander Skarsgård) slip further and further away from one another, into the false comfort of their respective digital cocoons. Ambitious reporter Nina Dunham (Andrea Riseborough) tries to coerce a young Webcam performer named Kyle (Max Thieriot) into doing an exposé on the seedy industry of online sex shows. Finally, ex-cyber crimes cop Mike Dixon (Frank Grillo) is too busy solving the digital issues of others to notice the dangerous game of online fraud his son Jason (Colin Ford) has engaged in.
Disconnect is the type of film whose title is also a proclaimed statement about its agenda. The word “disconnect” refers to various aspects of the modern era, our emotional apathy, and the growing dichotomy between reality and the digital experience; this film attempts to explore all of that in a way that is gripping and emotionally-engaging as a high-concept ensemble drama. By the climatic finish, the film has slipped from insightful and impactful study into overblown melodrama – but for most of its runtime, it is by far one of the best films to shine a light on the many pitfalls and plights of modern existence.
Comparisons to Paul Haggis’ 2004 Los Angeles race-drama Crash will be inevitable – but are not wholly unfair. In many ways, Murderball director Henry Alex Rubin and newcomer writer Andrew Stern have crafted a very similar film; but whereas Crash was heavy-handed in its overt (and contrived) discussions and examinations of race and race-relations, Disconnect opts for a more restrained approach, crafting believable characters and situations that are able to organically produce and solicit the types of discussion-points and/or reactions the filmmakers are clearly shooting for.
Stern’s script is a well-plotted road map that shifts between intersecting stories which all manage to converge in the climatic moments of the third act. On their own, each sub-plot of the narrative manages to smartly engage a particular aspect of digital life – and subsequently, real life as well. Whether it’s online identity theft, cyber-bullying, online affairs, “Catfishing” (assuming a fake digital avatar) or the constant distraction of wireless communications – this film finds a way to use technological issues modern people are concerned with, as portals into deeper examinations of personal issues like family, love and friendship.
Stern wisely keeps the people and their relationships at the forefront, with technology used as a metaphor for expressing (or indulging) all that is wrong in our emotions (lack of empathy, aloofness, denial, naivete, depression, loneliness, etc…). That our wide range of characters are all relatable and well-rounded only helps to sell the drama, since we actually care about what happens to them, and empathize with the hardships they have to endure.
Rubin should be commended for being able to tackle the immense challenge of conveying captivating drama in a movie where most scenes require actors to have their faces crammed into one of the many Apple products
advertised placed throughout the film (a sick irony, no doubt). Even though technology is the topic at hand, Rubin also remembers that it is the human beings his audience connects with, not the look of their Facebook profile page. Scenes where characters are chatting back and forth online – as expressed through hovering messages, in slick fonts, which appear onscreen in real-time with a character’s keystrokes – carry significant weight. Indeed, there are moments when the entire world and well-being of a particular character seems to hang in the pause between what he/she has just typed, will type next or a message waiting to be received – which goes to show just how well Rubin understands the material and how to present it to the audience.
Some of the most impactful moments in the film are no less harrowing even though you’ll see them coming a mile away. As stated, this type of film is nothing new (see also: Crash or Traffic); however, the concept is executed well, by a skilled filmmaker, so the journey becomes much more rewarding, despite its familiar nature. That said, this is in no way, shape, or form a “feel good film”; from start to finish, this is a serious-minded, dreary drama that is trying to tug your emotional strings, offering some pretty shocking and/or uncomfortable moments along the way (the opening scene is particularly smart, bold and darkly funny).
The cast deserves the biggest credit for making the film work. The presence of so many up-and-coming actors – like Grillo (Captain America 2), Skarsgård (True Blood), Thieriot (Bates Motel), Bobo (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) and Ford (We Bought a Zoo) – show that somebody in the casting department was paying attention. All turn in very good work that helps to bolster their respective storylines. Although it’s well into the second act before he takes center stage, comedic actor Jason Bateman is impressively serious and restrained in his depiction of aloof workaholic-turned-concerned father, Rich Boyd. Finally, Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo star Michael Nyqvist shows up for brief – but very intense – bit part.
On the female side: Paula Patton (Mission Impossible 4) gets some major screen time, but is only halfway convincing as a grieving mother trying to desperately hold on to her marriage. Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) is much more effective playing Nina, a character whose empathy and motives are so transient that it’s hard to ever get a read on her. Riseboriough makes Nina into one of the more complicated (and therefore interesting) players in the bunch, and pulls off one of the harder character arcs in the story. Meanwhile, actresses like Haley Ramm (Red State), and Hope Davis (The Newsroom) add some extra (if not marginalized) emotional punch with their supporting roles.
Where Disconnect falls short of greatness is in its final climatic act, where the carefully woven threads are pulled tight into a high-drama knotted conclusion – which I will only describe here by saying it involves slow-motion footage set to a grand musical score (yeah, that kind of drama). Like Crash’s now-infamous ‘daughter jumps in daddy’s arms’ sequence, Rubin teases the opportunity to do something truly shocking and bold, only to pull back and settle for the safer (and more saccharine) resolutions of self-realization and emotional catharsis for our characters. A catharsis which isn’t necessarily shared by the audience who came along for the ride.
In the end, the destination may not be as satisfying as it could’ve been (or initially seemed to be), but the journey often is. If the pitfalls of having technology (or an abundance of Apple products) in our lives has been an issue on your mind, definitely seek this film out. If the stresses of the real world (and start-to-finish emotional turmoil) are not what you prefer to spend your ticket money on, then best seek a connection elsewhere.
Disconnect is now playing in (very) limited release. It is 112 minutes long and is Rated R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language, violence and drug use – some involving teens.