“When I get there I’m going to remember you.”
What if someone presented you with fairly solid evidence of an afterlife? Would you stick around in this crumbling world, living out the rest of your life as your body eventually breaks down? Or would you rush off to that previously undiscovered country and embrace eternity?
This is the set up of Charlie McDowell’s somber The Discovery, a film that tricks you into thinking it’s going to be indie comedy bait before revealing a more sorrowful side. It’s almost remarkable to realize how melancholy this film is — it catches you by surprise. Yet The Discovery isn’t a slog to watch. There’s sadness here, but it’s not oppressive.
What keeps The Discovery from being bogged down into melodrama are the performances, particularly that of Jason Segel as Will. Segel proved his dramatic chops with 2015’s The End of the Tour, and here he continues to show he has a remarkable, offbeat leading man quality that more films would be wise to put to use. Here, with a frown permanently parked on his face, Segel’s Will is a man adrift. His father is Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), a scientist who made the discovery of the afterlife. At least, everyone thinks he did. One of the more curious elements of the script (written by McDowell and Justin Lader) is that the so-called “discovery” isn’t entirely confirmed. There are still doubts, yet millions across the world are killing themselves, hoping for it to be true. There’s a ticker in the background of almost every scene portraying the climbing number of people who have taken their lives to get to the other side.
On the anniversary of the discovery, Will travels to his father’s seaside estate. On the ferry over he meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a sarcastic young woman hiding suicidal urges. After foiling Isla’s suicide attempt, Will takes her back to his father’s crumbling mansion, where Thomas and his team of researchers, including Toby (Jesse Plemons), Will’s brother, continue to delve into the discovery. While everyone in the mansion seems convinced the discovery is legit, Will has his doubts. Will is so determined to put a stop to his father’s research that he sabotages an experiment. Yet this very act of sabotage ends up leading Will down a path to possibly proving that his father was right, and that there really is something beyond this life.
To say more would do a disservice to The Discovery, which goes in directions you’d never guess. Through it, an awkward but cute attraction blooms between Will and Isla. Mara’s Isla, unfortunately, is too thinly sketched. The character is designed to be an enigma, but the film never bothers to fully get around to exploring who she really is. Mara does the best she can, which is considerable given her talent, but a bit more character growth would’ve benefitted the film. This can be said of almost every character except for Will. Riley Keough is perhaps the most ill-used member of the cast, saddled with playing a supporting character who vanishes for almost the entire film only to show up during a pivotal scene.
Despite these thin characters, there’s an undeniable magnetism to The Discovery. The cinematography, from Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, is stunning — awash in sea foam greens and pale blues. It gives the film a chilly yet oddly welcoming feel — you find yourself enveloped in this film, succumbing to its mood. Unfortunately, The Discovery almost tanks whatever goodwill it has built up with an overly-expository conclusion, where characters verbally vomit up mountains of information to better explain what’s happening. It’s the type of wrap-up that feels as if some clueless studio exec insisted the film tack on so the film would play in Peoria, but since The Discovery is being released by Netflix that’s likely not the case. However frustrating this over-explaining is, it’s forgotten by the time the film arrives at its very final scene, where is haunting and hopeful in equal measure. Few films manage to pull off such a complex, resonating moment. That The Discovery does it seemingly effortlessly speaks to McDowell’s considerable skill. The Discovery may not be life-altering, but it’s something well worth pursuing.