J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sundance ’17: The Discovery

Science is still essentially agnostic. It makes no promises of harps and angels. However, Dr. Thomas Harber claims to have proof that after death, human consciousness leaves for a different plane of existence, the details of which remain unknown. As a result, tens of millions of people have committed suicide in anticipation of a fresh start. Yet, karma is still karma in Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Forty million plus have already taken their lives after “The Discovery,” but Harber is not inclined to take responsibility or show remorse. After all, they will go on somewhere, right? Perhaps he is also somewhat desensitized to suicide after his wife took her own life, pre-Discovery. Of course, that is why he is so driven to establish the specifics of the afterlife or whatever.

Harber’s semi-estranged son Will has come to his cult-like research institute hoping to convince the scientist to recant his claims. On the ferry to chilly, off-season Newport, Will encounters the mysterious Isla. Having sensed something dark hanging over her, Will manages to intervene during her suicide attempt. His father rather takes a liking to her too, so he agrees to take her on as a research subject/associate/cult member. Meanwhile, the junior Harber makes a discovery of his own that not necessarily contradicts his father’s, but radically alters its implications.

In terms of its metaphysical aesthetics, Discovery is not wildly incompatible with Matheson’s What Dreams May Come. It is safe to say karma plays a role, but it would be spoilery to spell it out. Still, it is probably safe to say McDowell and Justin Lader’s screenplay takes a radically unexpected turn, but it will not leave viewers dispirited. Quite the contrary.

Frankly, Jason Segel and Rooney Mara do some of their best work to date as Will and Isla. They are both convincingly smart and damaged, so it really feels like their relationship develops organically. Although it almost goes without saying, Robert “Sundance Kid” Redford’s Dr. Harber has all kinds of gravitas and presence. Yet, maybe the biggest surprise is Jesse Plemons’ humanistic, sneaks-up-on-you turn as Will Harber’s deceptively slacker-ish brother Toby.

The Discovery is an unusually smart film that features some provocative speculation but never skimps on character development. It is a worthy follow-up to McDowell’s crackerjack debut, The One I Love. Highly recommended, The Discovery screens again tomorrow (1/27) and Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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