Disconnect is an unexpected and valuable achievement, a movie plugged into the zeitgeist of how we live and where we are right now, at this particular cultural moment. I can’t remember a recent picture about American life this insightful and gripping, or one that raises questions it refuses to answer, leaving us gobsmacked when the credits roll. It’s a movie about how our lives—families, professions, emotional and sexual connections—are now driven and facilitated by technology, and how that has prevented us from getting to know our children, share intimacy with our partners and has otherwise caused us to define our daily existence in clicks. It’s also a humdinger of a personal drama with standout performances from a sprawling, Short Cuts-style ensemble, most notably Jason Bateman, Alexander Skarsgard and a terrific Andrea Riseborough, each put through the paces by a screenplay that keeps raising the stakes, and our investment. At a time in American movies where we rarely feel invested in the franchise and hijinks-driven commodities flooding the multiplex, Disconnect is the rare movie that holds up the mirror and says that as a society we are standing on a tenuous razor’s edge of our own making. It’s strong stuff.
From an airtight screenplay by Andrew Stern that unfolds as a tapestry of intersecting crises, Oscar-nominated director Henry-Alex Rubin (Murderball) mounts a roundelay of ten New Yorkers who first appear to have no connection. A busy defense attorney (Jason Bateman) is addicted to his clients, even at the dinner table, where cellular interruptus is the norm. He’s so preoccupied from his frustrated wife (Hope Davis) and alienated teenaged son (Jonah Bobo) that he fails to notice when the youth, a shy, fledgling musician without friends, develops an online relationship with his first legitimate girlfriend. Except that she doesn’t actually exist as anything more than a profile; a dream girl fabrication by two prankster classmates (Colin Ford, Aviad Bernstein), who manipulate him into a humiliating and very public sexual trap.
Meanwhile, a once-happy couple (Alexander Skarsgard, Paula Patton) mourning the death of a child find themselves in the throes of ennui, their marriage adrift as she confides in an chat room flirtation (Michael Nyqvist) while he toils away with online gambling. They can’t talk, at least not to each other, until her dalliance leads to an identity theft which all but wipes out their finances. They hire a cyber crimes investigator (Frank Grillo), who also happens to be father to the one the young pranksters, unaware of his son’s ruse and himself struggling as a single parent. The father and son devote themselves to gadgets and iPads but not to each other, speaking only in the most rudimentary exchanges. Across town, a local TV news reporter (Andrea Riseborough) develops a relationship with an underage sex cam performer (Max Thieriot), attempting to blow the lid off with an exploitation exposé. They communicate “safely” online until they meet in person and things, as they always do, become messy.
When the duped teen attempts suicide and is left comatose, his devastated father finally gets to know him—going on an odyssey to uncover the truth that led to the incident. At the same time, one of the boys responsible grows attached to his victim’s caring father—the kind of caring and engaged dad he himself doesn’t know—by continuing the imaginary character. And when their investigation hits a dead end, the broke and bereft couple hit the road to confront the thief, but end up confronting their marital discord and identity issues. The reporter and her muse grow closer—a danger zone the FBI becomes keenly aware of—but is her interest in the scoop, or saving him from his dangerous pimp (Marc Jacobs)?
If the story sounds complicated, it isn’t—but it is complex, with ten distinct characters given his or her due, each segment equally compelling. Stern’s screenplay displays mastery of structure as each story builds, twisting and turning to a breaking point. The performances are first-rate—Bateman, especially powerful, has a great moment late in the picture involving a confrontation at a screen door. Skarsgard plays effectively against type as an insecure former Marine emasculated at a desk job and by his wife’s extracurriculars; he has a sad scene where he wonders who he has become and what has happened to his life. Riseborough (W.E.) manages the neat trick of not letting even us know whether she truly cares about Thieriot, effectively playing a confident, sexual creature with extreme vulnerability tamped deep down. When these stories all intersect, director Rubin makes particularly original use of music and slow motion during a climactic sequence, and Disconnect touches greatness.
The superb American drama is about how we hide behind guises, roles we’re expected to play and bury deep into personas no one could guess. It’s about how we use technology to distance ourselves and then distance ourselves even further, run away even, from our true selves. Or perhaps really about how use technology to show our true selves—the sad parts, the ugly parts, the parts we can’t show to those closest. Ultimately, the movie tries to bring its characters full circle back to human-to-human contact, with mixed results, refusing to sermonize or solve any of of their problems—catharsis is out of the frame.
As cultural examination and an exercise in sustained tension that builds in emotional power, Disconnect is the best film of 2013 to date.