‘Disconnect’ connects audience to reality

By Kevin Cook

LD Entertainment’s “Disconnect,” the first non-documentary film from acclaimed “Murderball” director Henry Alex Rubin, quickly began generating considerable buzz when it opened at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals. With its nationwide release this week, that buzz will likely crescendo to a near-fever pitch.

“Disconnect” is a movie people will want to talk about that begs to be discussed, recommended and re-watched. It has nuanced performances, strong direction and tight, effective writing, and people will undoubtedly be talking. Rubin, whose 2005 documentary about quadriplegic athletes and their preparation for the Paralympic Games, “Murderball,” met with near-universal acclaim, makes his first foray into fiction with “Disconnect,” starring Jason Bateman.

While not shot or structured in documentary fashion, the film possesses the unique, “cinema vérité” style and sentiment that Rubin has previously made such effective use of in his career. In keeping with its title and central theme, the movie deals with four wholly disparate plot lines, though there are some Dickensian, ships-passing-in-the-night intersections of the separate paths. All of the characters and their relationships are profoundly affected on a surface level by technology and social media. On a deeper level, the characters are all fundamentally adrift, floating bleakly past one another in their self-contained liminal states, faces dimly lit against the vast and overwhelming darkness by their iPads and PSPs. The stark reality of the film’s setting and plot underscores its relevancy to the modern era, and it is the trappings of the contemporary age with which the characters avail themselves in their loneliness and discontent, at times with disastrous results.

Rubin’s piercing style of direction frames and highlights the authenticity of the characters, creating an entrancing style of hyperrealism that lends an enormous emotional weight to the characters and their plights. They’re not saving the world from an asteroid or repelling zombie hordes or really doing anything very spectacular. It would be easy for a film with four different plots revolving around four relatively everyday, low-Q-score individuals to be banal and boring, and the temptation would be to overcompensate, to spice it up, embellish and — in the process — cheapen their experiences and epiphanies. Instead, Rubin employs his documentary-honed perspective in bringing the familiar, day-to-day — but hardly trivial — concerns of the characters into sharp, haunting relief.

“I find that when you make documentaries, you never have a clear line of sight to your subject. For instance, if two people are talking at a dinner table, the only way you’d capture that in a documentary is through a hallway, through a window or over someone’s shoulder. You’d be removed, out of their space in order to allow them to speak freely and not be self-conscious. I applied the same process to movie making. The camera was at a distance, and we would zoom in. Hopefully it feels natural and as if you’re eavesdropping on real life,” Rubin said in the LD Entertainment production notes for “Disconnect.”

The end result is a film that feels like watching the real world — not so much art imitating life, as it is art magnifying and intensifying life. Rubin shoots almost exclusively from hallways, alcoves, adjoining rooms and other out-of-the-way spots to give the actors ample room, much as he would with a documentary, and it lends the scenes a feeling of raw verisimilitude. With the dialogue in the film, Rubin encouraged the ensemble cast to improvise, using their intimate knowledge of their characters’ thoughts as an extemporaneous springboard into more real, energetic speech, tinged with immediacy and impact.

“After we did a few takes with the actual written dialogue, we’d encourage the actors to speak what was on their minds. Sometimes accidental dialogue would come out that would circle the subtext better than anything that we could imagine. And sometimes those moments were far more real than anything that we’d anticipated,” Rubin said.

The improvisational freedom benefits the cast enormously. Bateman, stepping outside his typical role as a wry, primarily comedic actor, is a revelation. His comedy, in “Arrested Development,” for instance, or “Juno,” is predicated on his every-man-style appeal, and he taps that well deeply and to great effect in “Disconnect.” While Bateman’s thoroughly accessible, dad-next-door performance suggests that he could be anyone, it is so nuanced and intense that his character seems in every moment profoundly real, with agency and quiet, seething verve.

The ensemble, with all its various moving parts, is deftly balanced and, on the whole, performances are generally strong. Among the supporting cast, Alexander Skarsgärd particularly stands out in his role as a victim of identity theft, the investigation into which estranges him further from his wife as they both struggle to cope with the loss of their infant child. His life begins to unravel, slowly at first and then with escalating rapidity, and his growing shellshock and impotent fury are poignant and deeply moving.

The weak strand in this tapestry of individual stories is the plotline involving an enterprising journalist, played somewhat uninspiringly by British up-and-comer Andrea Riseborough, who investigates, reports on and becomes increasingly involved with a teenage sex worker. She stiffly plods her way through the formulaic narrative arc, which — particularly amidst the other characters and settings — is overwrought and perplexingly dull, given her young subject’s salacious line of work.

Also of note is the soundtrack and its stunningly effective use of AWOLNATION’s “Sail,” which serves not only to aurally intensify the film’s emotional climax, but also to thematically encapsulate all the individual struggles, all the lonely fears and doubts, all the actions taken — or deferred — by the characters as they drift in and out of one another’s lives, occasionally orbiting each other as loosely-held satellites but ultimately disconnected.

“Disconnect” is not a flawless film by any means. But in a year that has so far produced such turgid, vapid placeholders as “Olympus Has Fallen,” “Safe Haven,” and “The Last Stand,” Rubin’s unsettling — but eerily beautiful and true-to-life — tour de force stands head and shoulders above the densely huddled mass of shoddy efforts clogging the box-office. “Disconnect” tells not only the deepest and most moving stories to appear onscreen to date this season — it tells us just as much about ourselves, and the world we are all attempting to navigate, as it does the about characters we are watching.

Ultimately, a movie’s obligation is to first entertain, then enlighten. “Disconnect” does both superbly and with such grace and pathos that it deserves every bit (and more) of the buzz it will inevitably generate as it burrows into the collective film-watching psyche.

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