Sundance 2017: 'The Discovery' + 'The Rebel in the Rye'

Rooney Mara in The Discovery (2017)

Sundance explores life after death in The Discovery and life after fame in The Rebel in the Rye.

The Discovery

Director: Charlie McDowell
Cast: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford
Studio: Netflix
Sundance Premiere: 2017-01-20
Year: 2017

Rebel in the Rye

Director: Danny Strong
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, Hope Davis
Sundance Premiere: 2017-01-24
Year: 2017

If science could prove the existence of life after death, would life lose all meaning? That’s the central premise of director Charlie McDowell’s existential drama about a world that has become little more than a speedbump to the afterlife.

Two years ago, Dr. Harper (Robert Redford) proved the existence of an afterlife by measuring brainwaves at a sub-atomic level. Harper, a staunch empiricist, bristles at the term ‘afterlife’.

“Let’s call it a new plane of existence,” he insists during a live television interview. Moments later, a cameraman steps onto the set, thanks Harper for saving his life, and then blows his brains out.

He’s one of over four million people who have killed themselves in an effort “to get there”. Just what awaits us ‘there’ is now the concern of Dr. Harper, who has built a machine to probe the human brain for clues. He’s joined by his son Will (Jason Segel), a skeptical neurologist who believes that his father is at least partially responsible for the mass suicides going on, and totally to blame for the suicide of his disaffected mother.

What might seem like an intellectual tipping point for a ‘Science vs. Faith’ debate is kept mercifully grounded by McDowell, who stays focused on more earthly concerns. Namely, what makes someone willing to endure the pain of living when the promise of paradise beckons?

Will meets a young woman named Isla (Rooney Mara) while riding the ferry to his father’s secluded research estate. This would be a typical ‘meet cute’ were they not the only souls aboard the entire ferry. The film is populated by the space left behind by suicide victims. Reduced commuter traffic benefits aside, it’s disconcerting to see empty parking lots and vacant restaurants everywhere you turn.

Isla becomes the conduit into Will’s conflicted soul. This is a man of science who has watched his father’s discovery enable society’s cavalier attitudes toward life and death.

“Reality and fantasy are mutually exclusive,” he tells Isla during a long, heartfelt conversation on his childhood bunk bed. Despite the irrational and antiquated notion of romance, they fall in love and dare to experience the pain that others have forsaken.

This emotional core allows McDowell to sidestep much of the science which, quite frankly, doesn’t hold up. He doesn’t try to explain the inner-workings of The Discovery. All he cares about are the consequences of its existence and the quirky flourishes that make life so intoxicating. In the film’s most whimsical (and Frankensteinian) moment, Isla and Will raid a morgue for fresh experimental cadavers. It’s the kind of real-world adrenaline rush that beats the hell out of intellectual navel gazing.

The ending of The Discovery is bound to be contentious, but McDowell plays fair with the audience. Unlike other directors who attempt to hide the strings of their twist endings, McDowell allows us to discover the clues as Will discovers them. The conclusion leaves us reconsidering everything that came before, and trying desperately to remember the half-faded bits that seemed unimportant at the time.

“I don’t want to be phony.”

Nicholas Hoult in Rebel in the Rye (2017)

This is the simple goal held by legendary American writer J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) in Danny Strong’s directorial debut, Rebel in the Rye. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an ideal shared by the New York literary establishment in the '40s. Salinger was badgered to alter his short stories for the likes of The New Yorker and Story magazine. A staunch individualist dedicated to removing all distractions from his writing, Salinger drove himself and nearly everyone around him to madness in his dogged pursuit of unadulterated inspiration.

At its heart, Rebel in the Rye is a story about the importance of mentors. Strong brings the smoky nightclubs and jazzy diversions of the pre-war ‘40s to vibrant life with amazing sets and sounds. You might see Thelonious Monk playing the piano, or rub elbows with a snooty heiress like Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch). These were heady times when a Columbia writing student like Salinger could afford to ignore the falling bombs in Europe to focus on harnessing his powerful literary voice with the help of his professor, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey).

The scenes between the cocky young writer and the cynical (and white-knuckled alcoholic) Burnett are a delight. What starts as a father-son dynamic quickly evolves into an abiding professional respect. When the bombs finally land too close to home and Salinger ships off to a meeting with D-Day, Burnett implores him to keep writing. Specifically, to use the precocious spirit of his hero and muse, Holden Caulfield, to best the horrors of war.

Rebel in the Rye strikes its most startling visual poses during Salinger’s tour leading up to Utah Beach. Soldiers use pickaxes to chisel frozen buddies from icy trenches, while emaciated concentration camp survivors reach through barbed wire fences for scraps of crusty food rations. He may have survived the bloodshed on the beaches, but for the half-Jewish Salinger, World War II was a nearly insurmountable obstacle to his post-war creative output.

His search for escape from the wartime nightmares leads Salinger to his second mentor, the Hindu teacher Swami Nikhilananda (Bernard White). There, Salinger is schooled in the art of meditation and yoga. It’s instructive to see how Salinger cleared the cobwebs and completed his infamous cultural manifesto, The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s not particularly entertaining. Strong loses his way in this part of the story, likely because Salinger’s post-war struggles lack the same fire and intensity as his pre-war idealism.

Worse still are scenes after Salinger’s wild success, in which he feels the weight of an entire generation of disenfranchised men placed upon his shoulders. About the only dramatic tension in these scenes revolves around an unsettled (and juvenile) grudge held by Salinger toward Whit Burnett. The interesting bits, including initial rejections of The Catcher in the Rye manuscript by skittish New York publishers, are glossed over in favor of ‘tortured artist’ tropes. Salinger buys a secluded New Hampshire estate, alienates his wife and children, and composes reams of text he never intends to publish. It’s all terribly sad, of course, but these scenes feel like the perfunctory conclusion to a far more interesting journey.

Rebel in the Rye is a dutifully staged, well-acted production that captures the mood and place that informed Salinger’s masterpiece, even if it fails to capture anything new about the man.

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