The Banality of Online Evil

'Disconnect' is at its most compelling when it bucks the more familiar demands of drama.

Disconnect is another film that deals with the new horror that come with living in a digital age. The film plays it smart for a while, concentrating on the small scale human drama that comes from the very mundane betrayals that just seem to come with being on the Internet. But the film cannot resist the temptation of larger drama, and succumbs to it in the worst possible way. Disconnect is still commendable for its realistic depiction of the terrible things that can happen on the Internet. But you’d have to ignore how it all ends up.

Reporter Nina (Andrea Riseborough) investigates an online teenage webcam ring, befriending a recruiter (Max Thieriot) in the process. Teenagers Jason and Frye (Colin Ford and Aviad Bernstein) decide to pick on their classmate Ben (Jonah Bobo), befriending him on Facebook under another identity. When the bullying gets out of hand, Ben’s father Rich (Jason Bateman), driven by guilt and grief, tries to find everyone responsible. Cindy and Derek (Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgård) are the victims of identity theft, and soon find it difficult to keep their lives together.

The reporter story is the odd one out. While the other two stories deal with stuff that regular people can very well encounter on the Internet, the saga of Nina and Kyle is something else entirely. While the details of the story are actually interesting, it fits oddly inside the movie. For the most part, the film is really good at capturing the banality of the evil that goes on in the Internet. The stuff that happens in the other two stories is characterized more by people seeking connections unable to foresee the consequences of their actions.

But even the two, more grounded stories lapse into movie nonsense as the film tries to tie it all together. Suddenly, these regular people with regular lives drop everything to pursue vendettas. The film builds to a climax that forces parallels between all three stories, pushing them all towards stylized acts of violence. And this strikes a really odd note. The film abandons all sense of realism as it contrives a dramatic theme. But nothing really unites these stories aside from the casual intersection of the characters. The stylized parallels only serve to highlight just how shallow the stories really are.

The film’s strength lies mostly in its cast. The acting is pretty decent all throughout, except for a couple of snags. Jason Bateman can’t quite escape the absurdity of his character. He is forced to stare blankly at his co-actors as they make arguments that should cause any reasonable person to correct his course. But for the most part, everyone brings interesting shades to what are essentially stock characters. Alexander Skarsgård offers a peek at the underlying darkness that can live inside a veteran trying to return to normal life. And Andrea Riseborough displays a practiced artifice that feels paradoxically genuine.

Disconnect is at its most compelling when it bucks the more familiar demands of drama. People will argue that people staring at screens is not dramatic, but one has to come to accept that a large chunk of the drama of the modern world takes place in this domain. For the most part, Disconnect does a fine job of making that interesting. It’s just when the people leave the screens behind that it exposes its more hackneyed tendencies.

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