What would you do, how would you change your life, if there was definitive scientific proof that there is life after death? That is the pivotal question at the heart of The Discovery, the new film from writer/director Charlie McDowell (of The One I Love previously). McDowell is an immensely talented filmmaker proving with this new film that he is making cinema for intelligent minds. The kind of uber-intelligent films which challenge audiences to examine their own choices while also asking very big (often unanswerable) questions about the world around us. The Discovery is a deep, very deep, film that earns appropriate comparisons to Primer and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and if that interests you, it is definitely worth your time.
The Discovery stars Robert Redford as a scientist who figures out a way to detect that there is an "after life", or rather that our brain waves somehow leave the body upon death. But where do they go from there? That's what the film attempts to answer, in its own uniquely intriguing way. Jason Segel plays Will, one of Redford's sons, who returns to the island where he lives to learn about something new they've developed. On the ferry over he meets Isla, played by Rooney Mara, a woman with hair dyed blonde who he seems to have an instant connection with. It's best to see this film without knowing anything else, because the full experience comes from following the story as it plays out. This is as much as anyone needs to know going in.
McDowell sets up the world after "The Discovery", where people have started killing themselves in order to "get there" and give themselves a fresh start in whatever new world awaits them on the other side. Most of the dialogue and discussion centers around questions about life and why people feel the need to do this. It's a bit mopey, a bit cynical, but this is all part of the setup to take us on the journey deeper into the mind. He introduces ideas and fascinating questions, then gets even deeper with these ideas. Instead of going all out, McDowell keeps the focus on the relationship between Isla and Will. It's about these two and a few other people around them, because that emotional intimacy allows us to get even deeper into our own thoughts.
As expected, there's a big reveal in the second half that completely changes things. This is where the film goes from being interesting to being brilliant. It's one of those thinking person's films that intelligent minds will be so entranced by, you'll want to see it again immediately after watching it the first time. Once it reaches that point where you start to figure things out, it moves so fast that it's hard to keep up, and hard to figure out on the first take. And then, of course, once you know how it ends, you have to go back and watch it again to see what you might have missed the first time. It's not a gimmick either, it's a "holy shit" kind of reveal that will blow your mind and make you question your own choices. I love films that can pull this off.
The film is very low key (and low budget), and doesn't rely on visual effects or style or anything grandiose. It's all about the script and the characters and the emotions, and although some of the dialogue seemed a bit too cynical, it never gets boring. The Discovery is a gripping, engrossing film that will leave you with chills more than once. Segel and Mara are convincing in their performances, making the story believable and keeping us captivated. The score by Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans adds an extra touch of emotion. I'm thrilled to follow the career of Charlie McDowell, between this film and The One I Love, he's undoubtedly one of the most cerebral filmmakers working and it's exciting to see even more cinema for intelligent minds.
Alex's Sundance 2017 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing