Always Online, Ever “Disconnected”

Review of Disconnect, Directed by Henry Alex Rubin

Disconnect gives us four stories about people growing estranged from one another and how they reach a breaking point, only to find that reconnection is still possible. The narrative struggles with the growing disconnectedness in an American society awash in social media and communication technologies; and this flood inundates both young and old alike.

The storyline is built around three families (Boyds, Dixons, and Hulls) and an odd couple. The Boyds are a “normal” nuclear family–Rich (Jason Bateman) and Lydia (Hope Davis) are married and have two teenage children Ben (Jonah Bobo) and Abby (Haley Ramm). Dinners are distracted as Ben and Rich remain glued to their cell phones. Rich is preoccupied with work while Ben is a loner at school.

Then enter the Dixons. Mike Dixon (Frank Grillo) is a single father raising Jason (Colin Ford) after his wife died. The father-son relationship is tense because Mike gave up his career in the police force to take care of his son, but Jason believes Mike holds this against him. Their interactions usually comprise of terse orders and rule enforcement. Jason is schoolmates with Ben Boyd and one day Jason and a sidekick decide to mess with this social outcast. They create a fake Facebook account for a fictional female student named Jessica Rhony who takes interest in Ben and eventually begins to flirt. This leads to a tragic end.

And the Hulls? Their young child recently passed away the marriage between Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) and Cindy (Paula Patton) falls apart–they grieve separately in their own way. Derek travels for work and gambles online into the night while Cindy finds an online support network and pours out her heart to a user named “fear&loathing”. This couple is laid even lower when their banking information is stolen and all their savings disappear. They contact none other than Mike Dixon, now working as a detective, to help track down their cyber criminal.

Finally, we have our odd couple. Nina Dunham, a reporter, tries to break a big story to launch her career by interviewing Kyle about his employment in the cyber sex industry populated by underaged performers. The FBI tries to get Nina to reveal her source in order to crack down on this illegal exploitation of underaged teenagers. When Nina folds, Kyle is in trouble. The connection of this story with the other three is much more tenuous and isn’t revealed until the end in an anticlimactic fashion.

Each story is crafted in such a way as to keep us immersed. When the movie shifted between each group of characters, at no time did I find the transitions jarring or find myself not having a vested interest in the outcome of all the narratives. Disconnect was directed in such a way that technology appeared in very explicit ways (as to be expected due to the film’s themes); ways that will become more common in movies depicting everyday life. While Facebook chatting, the text was superimposed on the screen, which reminded me of House of Cards, which does the same thing when Frank Underwood texts on his cell phone. The motif in House of Cards had a similar thrust to Disconnect–our means of communication is transforming the way we live in drastic ways.

The message of Disconnect is clear: we are becoming disconnected from one another. Ben Boyd relies on Facebook to fill that gap. The Hulls find solace in online gambling and online support groups. Jason Dixon hides behind fake profiles to bully and eventually releases a scandalous photo into the world of social media with disastrous results. Kyle is the representative of sex, one of the most intimate activities, being detaching from physical contact and funneled through webcams.

We don’t need the abrasive effects of technology to teach us the harm of disconnection from relationships. The results have been noted generations ago. Just remember the ample research presented in Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. We could pedal backwards much further to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where he warns of an even greater threat–the disintegration of civil associations being the prelude to an expanding bureaucracy that institutes vertical relationships to the detriment of horizontal ones.

Although Disconnect portrays tragic vignettes of life in an America disconnected, it reaffirms the importance of relationships to the human experience. The endings are not all happy, but all the characters come to a realization that their relationships are the most important things they have, whether these relationships are healthy or not. Sadly, as Disconnect shows, it oftentime takes tragedies to reorient our lives and see what truly matters. This is our national experience. After 9/11 there was an outpouring of love for neighbor across the country. The same is unfolding in the aftermath of the Boston bombings–people opened their homes to out-of-towners unable to leave. At the same time, these national waves of civil strengthening will pass as the shock fades.

As society continues to drift toward a scenario where being disconnected is increasingly normal, the church must act as that faithful presence reminding those outside its walls of the primacy of relationship, both with God and with man. Our Lord himself posited that love of God and love of man are intertwined. As the church lives out its calling as a community, a people, a kingdom, of great diversity and supernatural unity, it displays God’s glory to a watching and disconnected world. They will know we are Christians by our love.

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