Menaces in the Machine The Modern Age Isn’t What It’s Cracked Up to Be

City Pulse | April 10, 2013
In an age where people obsess over their cellphones to the exclusion of the physical world around them, a dystopian malady takes over. Identity theft, online bullying, and interactive porn sites each play a part in a problematic digital social landscape that “Disconnect” examines in a razor-sharp triptych narrative. Every character gets in over their head via pervasive technology. The thought-provoking movie is seamless in plaiting together the lives of its scrupulously credible characters. The effect is haunting.

The subject of shrouded online identities, and their ability to infiltrate and damage the lives of their victims, may sound like old news to some but the threat is constant. The recent spam wars that slowed internet traffic to a crawl for millions of users is just one more in a long line of reminders about how vulnerable anyone who uses a computer or cellphone is.

Andrea Riseborough’s quick-witted television journalist Nina carries on a webcam conversation with Kyle (Max Thieriot), an internet sex worker for an underage sex site. Self-assured Kyle likes what he does. He makes good money showing off his nubile bod and the erotic tricks it can do. Nina earns his trust, but all she really wants is to break a juicy story that will put a feather in her cap at the TV station she works for — not that she isn’t susceptible to Kyle’s very direct charms.

Ben (Jonah Bobo) is a sensitive teenage loner. He writes plaintive songs on piano when he gets home from high school. Ben hides behind a swath of long hair that hangs down over his eyes. The fragile son of a successful attorney (well played by Jason Bateman), Ben takes the bait when a “girl” from his school professes her attraction in the form of Facebook instant messages. Unknown to Ben, her identity is comprised of a couple of bullying classmates — one of whom is the son of Mike, an internet-crime investigator and former cop (played by Frank Grillo).

Mike works on a case of identity theft that has devastated the lives of Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) and Cindy (Paula Patton), a married couple whose relationship was already in crisis due to the death of their child. Derek, a former Marine, imagines doling out some personal justice on the person who ruined his life.

Director henry Alex Rubin (“Murderball”) embellishes the visuals with an inventive use of bold graphic design for the instant message dialogue that takes place between characters. Voyeurism becomes an interactive-like encounter for the viewer. An image system involving the camera viewing its subjects at various distances through windows and fences adds to a suspenseful sense of constant surveillance. In addition, cinematographer Ken Seng (“Quarantine”) uses a combination of documentary and straight narrative camera techniques to keep the viewer on edge.

Rubin advances debut feature screenwriter Andrew Stern’s dynamic source material with an insistent rhythm of emotional counterpoint that culminates in an artistically composed crescendo of synchronized climaxes. When the slow-motion sequence occurs, it gives the audience time to ruminate on the physical and emotional forces that led up to it. Your cellphone can’t help you.

Rated R. 115 mins. (A-) (Four Stars – out of five/no halves)

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