[This is a re-post of my The Discovery review from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The film will be released on Netflix on Friday, March 31st.]
Filmmaker Charlie McDowell’s directorial debut, The One I Love, was a delightful, devilishly dark, and funny spin on the sci-fi genre. The grounded tale of a couple who discover that “perfect” versions of each other exist was a wonderful way to examine the ins and outs of relationships, and it was fun! McDowell’s follow-up film, The Discovery, is very much not that. It’s still a very grounded sci-fi story mind you, but it’s much darker, at times terrifying, and purposefully obtuse. Of course, the tone is fitting given the subject matter: mass suicides are running rampant following proof of the existence of the afterlife. Ultimately, the film’s ambition proves to be larger than its reach, but it’s an admirable and oftentimes effective drama about mortality, regret, and, well, the value of living.
The film opens with a prologue of sorts, in which scientist Dr. Thomas Harber (Robert Redford) is giving his first substantial interview six months after he announced his findings to the world: that the afterlife exists, and he has proof. Through extensive research he’s found the existence of significant brainwaves leaving the body shortly after death. But this “discovery” had unintended consequences as mass suicides shook the world. At the time of the interview, 1 million people have taken their lives in the six months since the announcement. The interview is ended abruptly with a bang, and then the film flashes forward two years later, at which point the suicide toll has reached 4 million.
It’s here where we’re introduced to our main protagonist, Will (Jason Segel). On a ferry to a foggy island, he comes across a young woman named Isla (Rooney Mara). The two strike up conversation and Will expresses his skepticism about the discovery, noting that evidence shouldn’t “overwhelming”, it should be definitive. They part, only to meet again later on when Will rescues Isla from trying to commit suicide herself.
Will, it turns out, is the son of Dr. Harber, and he’s on the ferry in order to meet his father and younger brother—played to delightful perfection by Jesse Plemons—after having fallen out with the family following a tragedy. I’ll leave it there as there are many more plot twists and turns that follow, and it’s best to experience the film as cold as possible.
The Discovery juggles a lot of balls in the air at once, and as it progressed I found myself wondering where it was going—was this a movie about a cult? A father-son drama? A romance? It’s a little of everything, but it doesn’t entirely pull these threads together into a cohesive or satisfying manner by the film’s end. Its ambition proves to be too hefty, but while it doesn’t knock everything out of the park, it is consistently compelling. You never really know exactly where it’s going, which is both its strength and weakness.
Segel is solid as the film’s protagonist, continuing his path of choosing more dramatic roles. It doesn’t touch the greatness of his underrated turn in The End of the Tour, but that’s partly due to the fact that the plot of the film hinges on keeping secrets, so it’s not until well into the movie that you fully understand the emotions at play. Redford is swell as well in a role that’s probably more substantial than you think, but it’s Plemons and Mara who really shine. I don’t entirely know what Plemons was doing with this character—the younger brother everyone assumes is an idiot, but is smarter than he looks/acts despite his devotion to his father’s cause—but he is endlessly watchable. He takes what could have been a throwaway role and makes it entirely unique.
Mara, meanwhile, is playing another somewhat aloof outsider, but she’s so good that the familiarity isn’t much of a bother. Isla, like Will, is a bit of a mystery for most of the movie, but the talent of Mara shines through, making the role compelling even if you’re not entirely sure what she’s all about.
As with The One I Love, The Discovery offers a twist in its third act that I predict will be divisive. I wouldn’t dare spoil it here, but it simultaneously offers more shading to the film overall while also taking your head for a spin. Where The Discovery really shines is in its focus on mortality. Just because we know for certain the afterlife is real, does that mean it’s ethical to call it quits on our mortal life? Isn’t struggle and the bettering of oneself in the face of adversity what makes us the most human? These are big questions and the film doesn’t shy away from them. Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel a pit in my stomach for most of the movie’s runtime. Aside from the fact that the terrific score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is ominous as all get-out, the constant presence of suicide and death forces us to confront our own mortality, however uncomfortable it may be.