Religious topics aren’t foreign territory for Sundance movies. Maybe that’s because independent filmmakers have the freedom to explore religious topics with more nuance and even irreverence than the traditional studio system is ready to risk. And the 2017 Sundance Film Festival has its share of obviously religiously oriented films, including not one, but two about nuns — the transgressive comedy The Little Hours and the more contemplative drama Novitiate.
Two others, though, came in from a different angle, by exploring territory most commonly linked with religion: the afterlife. They’re in two different genres — The Discovery plays more like sci-fi, while A Ghost Story is a nearly experimental fable — but they both take a curiously similar tack in their treatment of the topic and its implications, and both with contemplative sensibilities.
(They both star Rooney Mara, too, though that’s just a lucky accident.)
The Discovery: what if the existence of the afterlife was scientifically proven?
In the near future, Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) scientifically proves that the afterlife exists — that when a person dies, their consciousness leaves their body and ascends to some other plane.
The Discovery doesn’t really dwell on or explain the mechanics of this revelation, because the outcome is far more interesting. People begin killing themselves in mass numbers in an attempt to escape the pain of this life, or because they’re desperate to discover what’s on the next plane. Funerals take on a different cast. Even the way people think about murder shifts.
On the second anniversary of “the Discovery,” neurologist Will (Jason Segel) meets Isla (Rooney Mara) on a ferry, and they strike up a conversation. Will doesn’t believe in the discovery quite as much as everyone else, he tells Isla, who seems both sardonic and obviously depressed. When they get off the boat, Isla says goodbye and hitchhikes to some unknown destination, while Will’s brother Toby (Jesse Plemons) picks him up and drives to a gigantic, rambling house occupied by people who are trying to find meaning in a post-Discovery world.
The less I say from here, the better, since The Discovery’s greatest strength is its element of surprise. The film’s opening scene is one of the strongest sci-fi world-building scenes I’ve ever seen, and there are moments throughout where characters say or do something that makes perfect sense given the Discovery, but that are shocking nonetheless. It’s enough to keep the film gripping.
That’s good, because the screenplay itself is baggy and unevenly paced, with loads of clunky expositional dialogue. People do a lot of sitting around and contemplating the universe — which, in fairness, one might be tempted to do in a post-Discovery world. And knowing that this life isn’t all there is leads these discussions in some rather existentialist directions. But at some points, all the talking seems like cover for some limitations in characterization: There’s plenty that we’re simply told about characters, rather than getting to see it for ourselves, and ultimately that makes it harder to sympathize with them, especially in their biggest emotional moments. (One huge reveal near the end is clearly meant to be shocking, but feels curiously cold.)
That said, with an excellent cast — Redford, Segel, Mara, and Plemons, plus Ron Canada and an underused Riley Keough — the script doesn’t quite succumb to its own weight.
And the film does take seriously its role as a sort of metaphysical sci-fi — in the vein of a movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — which is, at its core, always ethical. It’s not an allegory for or critique of religions that preach an afterlife and their effect on the way adherents experience the present life. Which is good; the movie could have wandered off too easily into ham-fisted territory. But it does still point to how much of our conduct in this life is dependent on what we believe about what happens after we die. If our beliefs were proven, how would they change?
The Discovery eventually becomes interested in regrets, and how we deal with them; as regrets are something people contemplate at the end of their lives, this is natural territory for a movie about the afterlife. Yet it’s also a love story, directed and co-written by Charlie McDowell, whose (excellent) debut feature The One I Love had an eerie alternate-universe feel to it as well. Like that film, The Discovery invites us to reflect on our own lives through a slightly bent lens: If the world as we know it, and the assumptions we make about it, were to change just a little, how would that change the way we live and love? The Discovery isn’t a perfect probing of that, but it’s still watchable and provocative.
A Ghost Story: a fable, with a bed sheet and a pie
A Ghost Story takes the opposite approach to an exploration of the afterlife: As a kind of cosmic folk tale, it’s a simple and strong evocation of grief and, yes, regret. Directed and written by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon), it was also one of the most acclaimed films of the festival.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck (who’s reunited with Lowery here after starring in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) play M and C, a couple living in a small house in what looks to be Texas. They clearly love each other. But M is ready to move out of the house, while C feels a strange attachment to it.
One night they both bolt awake after hearing a crash on the keys of the piano in the living room. But nobody seems to be out there. Shortly thereafter, C dies in a car accident.
But wait, something unusual is going on. C, lying in the hospital morgue, gets up and leaves, still covered by the sheet that was atop over his body (with two convenient eye holes cut in it now).
To preserve the mystery, I’ll stop there, except to say that Affleck is remarkably recognizable as an actor even when you can’t see him. And there’s a scene in which Mara eats pie that set the film’s Sundance audience aflame.
Lowery’s tendency as a director is to privilege images over dialogue — each shot in any of his films feels like it could be framed and hung on the wall. A Ghost Story doesn’t have much talking at all (and in some places, to comical effect). You have to watch and feel and experience what’s onscreen in order to follow the story, which begins to play with our expectations about time in ways that are ultimately deeply satisfying, almost cathartic. That means that when people do talk, we pay attention: This must be important. And as the movie shifts from realism to surrealism to something all its own, we’re carried along by what we see.
Curiously enough, A Ghost Story casts the afterlife in almost the same pattern as The Discovery: It is, in the end, shaped by our regrets and loves. We are not done with life until we reconcile those things about which we feel shame or remorse. In other words, the afterlife is a direct product of life.
Both The Discovery and A Ghost Story find ways to explore the question of what happens after we die, without coming to any definite conclusions. And that’s what makes them both remarkable meditations not just on the hereafter, but the here and now.
The Discovery has been acquired by Netflix and will be released in theaters on March 31. A Ghost Story was acquired before Sundance by A24, but no release date has been set.