Mysteries bloom, shrivel, then wither away in the indifferent Arctic frost of the dying-child drama “Aloft.”
Tracking a journey by a documentarian (Mélanie Laurent) and her subject (Cillian Murphy) toward the North Pole, the film holds itself at an icy remove from its audience, rendering its characters as impenetrable as if they were encased in ice. Like cheeks on a freezing day, any curiosity or interest the sparse script engenders is puckered dry by the end, leaving behind only an irritating numbness.
Journalist Jannia (Laurent) and accomplished falconer Ivan (Murphy) brave punishing winds and frozen but crackling lakes to visit his mother, Nana (Jennifer Connelly), a faith healer who treats the few who can make the pilgrimage to her homebase in the tundra. It’ll be Ivan’s first meeting with his mother in two decades — a fact to which Jannia gives scarce thought, as she has her own reasons for making the arduous trip.
The film toggles between Jannia and Ivan’s dangerous trek in the present day and Nana’s journey toward embracing her curative powers 20 years ago — powers that fail her younger son, Gully (Winta McGrath), who’s dying of cancer. Nana takes her children to a silver-haired shaman (William Shimell) in dirty denim. He refuses to see the little boy, but discovers in her a miraculous ability to restore sight to a blind child. When she reveals her younger son’s failing health and her frantic efforts to save him to this healer who’ll become her mentor, he scolds, “Stop resisting pain” — and it’s exasperatingly unclear whether such callous advice is meant to be a hard truth or mere apathy.
Like too much else in the film, there’s not enough detail or specificity to get invested in Nana’s newfound gifts or the imminent death of her child. Peruvian writer-director Claudia Llosa, who won the top prize at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival for “The Milk of Sorrow,” never makes clear in her English-language debut what her protagonist’s powers are, where they come from, or if embracing them as a profession changes her in any way.
Promising tensions abound — chief among them Nana’s eventual abandonment of her parental responsibilities to treat strangers, her efforts to shield herself from the public eye while surrounding herself with visitors, and Ivan’s devoted fatherhood and careful cultivation of childhood wounds — but Llosa develops none of them, instead opting for an oblique and elusive narrative style that ill-prepares both her actors and the audience for a final scene that should be intimate and devastating and cathartic, but elicits about as much emotion as the confetti of snow that flies so often across the screen.
A scene near the end involving a clanking pick-up truck on the verge of falling through the ice with a pre-pubescent Ivan and his little brother in the front seats finally adds some genuine suspense to the proceedings. Likewise, the first few moments of Ivan’s reunion with his mother (Connelly in old-age makeup) generate some anticipation, especially when Nana’s seeming lack of recognition of her son lights his eyes aflame with cruel knowingness.
Murphy is reliably compelling, but even he can’t quite make the abrupt, weepy final monologue convincing. In her first lead role since 2012’s little-seen “Virginia,” a sedate but steely Connelly is betrayed by her director, who seems to prize inscrutability above all else. Laurent simply disappears. “Aloft” is simply adrift.