“Aloft,” currently being screened as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a film about healing.
Directed by Claudia Llosa, the film toggles between two timelines, breaking down the long-term relationship between two characters and contrasting two different kinds of healing.
Both timelines take place in a remote northern wilderness. The film never really clarifies if we’re in Alaska or Canada, but as the winds whip over the vast snowdrifts, we realize it doesn’t really matter. It’s bleak and beautiful at the same time.
One timeline takes place in the present, the other 20 years in the past. In the past, young Ivan (Zen McGrath) is an aspiring falconer who struggles with his tough single mother Nana (Jennifer Connelly) and his younger brother Gully (Winta McGrath), who has a critical illness.
Gully’s condition requires experimental treatment that no doctor is willing to provide, so Nana takes the boys to a mysterious faith healer called The Architect (William Shimell) who conducts periodic healing events by lottery. Ivan’s pet falcon interferes with the healing, but in the process Nana has an experience that leads her to believe she possesses the same powers as The Architect.
In the present, Ivan is an adult (now played by Cillian Murphy). His work with falcons has given him some renown, if not wealth, and attracted the attention of a reporter named Jannia (Melanie Laurent). Ivan resents Jannia’s intrusion into his modest home, where he lives with his wife and child. He suspects that Jannia is more interested in his estranged mother, who has become a famous faith healer, and he is right.
One event leads to another, and eventually Jannia and Ivan set out into the extreme Arctic to find Nana’s next scheduled healing. Ivan’s motivation is confrontation; Jannia’s is less clear. Their journey is intercut with scenes from Ivan’s childhood that slowly reveal the depth and pain of his family history.
Ivan and his mother are both reluctant parties, but they are dealing with very different forms of pain. Nana’s life work has become built around the healing of the body, but her son’s pain is spiritual, psychological. Ivan carries a deep resentment for his mother, and his quest to confront her is both poetic and tragic.
Murphy’s performance is a real highlight here, especially in the scene where the confrontation finally arrives. Audiences will recognize the actor from his role as Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (and zombie fans will know him from his early role in “28 Days Later").
Connelly is another familiar face who turns in some good work, but the most vivid performance comes from the cold, northern setting of the film. Llosa uses the bleakness of the landscape as a mirror to the bleakness of the characters, and the soaring image of the falcon represents a freedom Ivan and his mother strive for but struggle to attain.
All this symbolism and mood accompanies a very deliberate pace. “Aloft” is not in a rush, and audiences should be prepared for that.
Audiences should also be aware that in spite of its powerful and ultimately uplifting story, “Aloft” is an R-rated film. This is mostly due to some periodic profanity, but there is also a brief sex scene that, frankly, feels unnecessary.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.