When this well-meaning and timely suspense number about the foibles and follies in an online realm had its U.S. premiere on opening night of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) in January, the general crowd consensus was a thumbs-in-a-slightly-upward position but with a caveat. The caveat: Disconnect was strong by comparison with the oftentimes meager caliber of SBIFF openers. Not incidentally, the film provided a handy cautionary-tale theme during the festival, as audiences were kindly asked to “disconnect” devices, ixnay texting, sexting, tweeting, online gaming, and other manner of avoiding the analog world while others are enjoying the film fare.
Alas, director Henry Alex Rubin’s story is a warning on levels much deeper and more life-sullying than decorum in public places. We are plunged into the three woebegotten stories of folks lured into harm’s way through digital contact, via the cruelty and criminality of identity theft, bullying adolescents, and the dark netherworld of the sex chat industry.
Things go bump and worse in the virtual world here, and Rubin — whose previous work in documentaries can be detected in his reality checking but not in his narrative-weaving skills — keeps the narrative thread taut and nervous while switching between story streams. Tension builds upon tension, as the film works its slowly grinding crescendo of intensity. Along the way, we’re presented with a cross section of humanity affected by online shenanigans, from a reporter to a cop to teens, sucked into the vortex by various portals. Clearly, part of the metaphorical scheme of the film, through Rubin’s direction and Andrew Stern’s screenplay, presents its layered, interconnected stories as a correlating model of the Internet, all about connectivity for good, evil, and the vast in-between.
But a linear film follows its own rules of conduct. Making connections between the triangle of plots proves tricky business, and the overheated, implausibly operatic culmination of the film tends to chip away at what is good about it. We’re reminded of what was wrong with the multi-tendril narrative of Crash (Paul Haggis’s, not David Cronenberg’s earlier, superior film of the same name), in which the willful wish to cast a wide net over societal realities brushes aside subtlety and brings on the cyber-melodramatics.