The first scene of Aloft is one of the more haunting movie openings in recent years. It's a bitter cold day in northern Canada; against a barren snowscape, a single mother named Nana (Jennifer Connolly) and her two young sons hitch rides in vans from morose men toward an increasingly remote location. With little dialogue, we discover they are on their way to visit a faith healer named The Architect, who performs rituals for a cult of believers in an igloo-like structure built from twigs. Nana's younger son is ill; this shack, and the fragile, unspoken promise it houses, is her last hope. But, her older son is a budding falconer and his majestic bird takes flight against The Architect.
The sensory power of this scene is still ringing even as the film's mystique slowly drains. Aloft cuts between two timeframes: one in which Nana has subsequent run-ins with The Architect as her youngest becomes sicker, and a period 20 years later, when she has assumed her own faith-healing mantle. Her older son, Ivan (Cillian Murphy), is unable to cope with his mother's abandonment and retreats into his birds. A French journalist (Mélanie Laurent) comes to Ivan's doorstep looking for Nana, and despite his livid protests he eventually agrees to accompany her on a trek to the remote Arctic Circle outpost where Nana lives as a recluse with her followers.
It's a journey of discovery for Ivan: What caused his mother to abandon her child for a spiritual quest? It's also a journey for the audience, but not in the way the film intends. The film is filled with gabbing and melodrama, even as it maintains the gorgeous visuals. The present-day trek northward fills the stark, airy void with chatter that glazes over Nana's state of mind. It feels unnecessary.
The competing storylines pull Aloft away from its central questions. The entire flashback structure is building toward one of those twist endings that the characters would already know, but that's being deliberately withheld from the audience in an attempt at suspense.
Connolly and Murphy give strong performances, though neither of them looks completely in sync with the Great White North surroundings. Connolly never quite sells Nana's transformation from desperate mother to full-blown mystic, though since we barely see her in full-on faith-healer mode, there's little reason to buy her arc, anyway. With his bony physique and head constantly buried under a hood, Murphy always seems lost in his own world. He does, however, have great chemistry with his falcon.
Aloft was written and directed by Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa. Her previous feature was 2009's Oscar-nominated The Milk Of Sorrow, about a young woman who goes to extreme measures to avoid the abuse her mother met at the hands of Peru's military dictatorship, and it's an intoxicating mix of magic realism, body horror, and reckoning with a nation's painful history. Her new film lacks the same unnerving qualities—it feels like a more standard tale of frayed familial bonds that happens to take place in an unusual setting.
But Aloft maintains Llosa's biggest strength as a filmmaker: an acute sense of place. The movie was filmed in Manitoba and makes full use of its gorgeous isolation, including a harrowing scene on the frozen ice roads of Lake Winnipeg. The cinematographer, Nicolas Bolduc, keeps his camera low, centered on the characters as their fates spill over into the vast winter surrounding them. With frequent cutaways to flying hawks against this landscape, Llosa evokes the animal-themed wilderness narratives of Jack London. That opening still shines like a beacon in the frozen north, though less brightly once we've heard the noise and seen the nothingness which follows.