There may be no American actor who suffers as exquisitely as Jennifer Connelly does. From her turn as a rich-girl addict in “Requiem for a Dream” (2000) to her spate of tortured-wife roles (most recently in last year’s “Noah”), she’s Hollywood’s reigning queen of the Set Jaw, the Palpable Gulp, and, oh yes, the Evocative Single Tear. Heck, she’s even won an Academy Award for this. So it’s compelling to watch her turn her skill on its head in “Aloft,” in which she plays a healer who sorely lacks a bedside manner. Alas, it’s not compelling enough to sustain our interest for the full ninety-five minutes of this unredemptively grim drama. Put bluntly, I’m not sure anything is.
Connelly stars as Nana, the working-class single mother of falcon-loving little toughie Ivan (Zen McGrath) and sweet-tempered Gully (Winta McGrath; yes, they’re brothers in real life), who’s dying of an unnamed illness. In an effort to save his life, the three, along with Ivan’s pet falcon, trek to mysterious faith healer Newman (opera singer William Shimell) – though Nana suspects he’s a charlatan. As it turns out, he’s a boozing lecher and the real deal, and he teaches her that she channels “the gift” as well. But due to an unfortunate accident for which Nana blames Ivan but could just as easily blame herself, the family fractures anyway. Fast-forward two decades, and a grown Ivan (Cillian Murphy) is a professional falconer and certifiably grim husband and father now completely estranged from his mother, a world-renowned mystic. When a French documentarian (Mélanie Laurent) with ambiguous motives pays him a surprise visit, he joins her quest to track down his notoriously elusive mum in the Arctic Circle.
We learn all this in fits and starts because writer/director Claudia Llosa (“The Milk of Sorrow”) seems to have studied at the (pre-“Birdman”) Alejandro González Iñárritu School of Nonsequential Gloom. But while Iñárritu’s work usually boasts some compensatory visual delight, this film drifts on its twenty-year timeline in a sepia-toned, handheld series of close-ups that look less gritty than just plain bad. Even the actors – whom a cynic might conjecture were specifically chosen for their ability to prettily cry (Murphy, Laurent, and Connelly have the most beautiful eyes in the business) – appear flattened by the unrelenting mopiness of this milieu. Connelly does come more alive than the others, particularly as the aged Nana (who brandishes impressively furry brows); though she is still technically achieving her per-film suffering quotient, this temporary reprieve from sainthood seems to suit her.
To be fair, Llosa does touch upon some intriguing ideas rarely addressed on celluloid: Despite Nana’s healing abilities, she easily wins this year’s award for worst movie mama, and we’re meant to wonder whether the two facts are inextricably connected. Even before she permanently abandons her offspring, the woman is perpetually abandoning them in emotionally and physically dangerous situations, and she expects young Ivan to extend her a level of mercy and understanding that she eternally withholds from him. Between her voracious narcissism and Newman’s missing sensitivity chip (a Jennifer Aniston phrase that apparently never gets old), Llosa seems to be investigating the fine lines between empathy and sympathy, forgiveness and forgetfulness, and general and personal compassion, especially since both Nana and Newman seem utterly devoid of the latter.
The problem is Llosa doesn’t show us much compassion of any form. For long stretches, these characters’ angst is our angst – think grubby interiors, wordless shots of people toiling in mud or trudging through snow, and an extremely graphic pig birth – and yet there’s never much payoff, not even in the disappointingly anticlimactic climax. Between its undeniably strong cast and doggedly unappealing mien, I kept assuming this film possessed a significance that I was too dim-witted to perceive, the way a dilettante might dismiss Albert Einstein for wearing a shabby coat. But given the stingy way Llosa metes out crucial details – not to mention the heavy-handed, almost generic symbolism of the falconeering (which serves no other narrative purpose) – I suspect she is banking on that kind of confusion, as if she’s conflating obfuscation with depth and hoping we’ll do the same. Now that I think of it, perhaps there’s a charlatan in this story after all.
This was originally published in Word and Film.