In the Internet-based thrillers of yore, by which I mean 1995, the primary danger encountered by filmmakers was outdated technology—cutting-edge graphics and astronomical modem speeds that would look and sound grandparent-ready just a few years later. Even as technology continues to accelerate, the risk of inadvertently depicting obsolescence has been overtaken by the risk of movies sounding hopelessly fascinated by something so common. Real-life news provides plenty of fodder for paranoid Internet-themed thrillers, but as the Internet has become a greater part of everyday life, getting freaked out by the nefarious possibilities of social media and smartphones may soon be akin to expressing alarm over the number of channels available to cable TV subscribers.
Disconnect, to its credit, is not a paranoid Internet-themed thriller—at least, not quite. The film, just out on DVD, is more of a drama with elements of suspense, taking a linked-stories approach (which is to say Altmanesque if good and Crash-ish if not so good) to a variety of connectivity issues, technological and not.
A former cop investigates a serious case of identity theft for a distraught couple; the cop’s son is one of two teenage boys engaged in online bullying with a fellow classmate; the victim of the bullying is the son of a high-powered lawyer who can’t put down his cell phone; the lawyer represents a news organization doing a report on webcam exploitation sites; and so on. Some of these connections are revealed right away while others are held back, but as contrived as they are, the filmmakers don’t use these relationships for shocking twists.
No, director Henry-Alex Rubin and writer Andrew Stern have loftier ambitions; they want to weave together multiple stories of the human condition as filtered through our digital here-and-now. The sense of currency doesn’t keep the story threads from a certain narrative and thematic familiarity: the reporter (Andrea Riseborough) gets close with a webcam kid (Max Thieriot), raising questions of whether she is exploiting her subject; the couple (Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgard) are having trouble after losing a baby; the distant lawyer father (Jason Bateman) craves justice for his son, in part out of guilt.
Bateman gives a particularly touching performance, on the brink of despair as one kind of online obsession (using his smartphone to keep work forever within arm’s reach) gives way to another (trying to track down his son’s online tormentors). In both instances—and throughout the movie—technology provides occupation for unhappy people in crisis.
Bateman strips away his comic tics to play this lost father, an appropriate course of action, given that Disconnect is almost entirely humorless. Rubin invests even the most familiar arcs with some urgency, using unobtrusive handheld cameras and dim lighting to create anxiety. But that anxiety, pushed further by the unrelenting somberness of tone, places the movie on the edge of hysteria. Your children are running wild, bullying each other into suicide attempts and selling their bodies on webcams! Online poker sites will steal your identity and take all your money! And the people who try to stop it make everything worse!
Despite the movie’s index of terrible Internet consequences, I don’t think Disconnect intends to startle viewers into shutting off their iPads, or to blame the very existence of technology for its overlapping potential tragedies. On Rubin’s DVD commentary, he mentions the film’s treatment of the “difficulty people have communicating each other.” It’s a point both well-taken and also undermined when the movie can only make that point via worst-case-scenario melodrama.
The commentary track adheres to the explain-what’s-happening-on-screen school of commentaries, but in between Rubin’s tag-like scene descriptions (every scene that introduces a new character must be mentioned specifically), he expounds on the movie’s themes and intentions (and title meaning!), which are mostly apparent within ten or 15 minutes.
Disconnect is nowhere near as laughable as its 1995 ancestors; it more or less accepts online communication as part of our lives and fodder for drama. But well-intention or not, the drama will look familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a morning-show report on the dangers of the Internet. Rubin’s commentary mirrors both his film’s earnestness and its ultimate shallowness: he sounds extremely serious while making surface-level observations.