What if death wasn’t a definitive, everlasting goodbye, but rather the first step towards the next phase, the great beyond, as proven by science? That’s the theological quandary at the heart of The Discovery, co-writer/director Charlie McDowell’s thoughtful, intensely gloomy follow-up to his surprising, heavy-hearted The One I Love. Moody and melancholy, much more so than his similarly, deceptively high-concept first film, yet bristling with ideological daydreaming, particularly directed towards one’s dreary existence in our hopeless universe, it’s a heavy, sorrowful and deeply thematic concept that doesn’t quite get its full due in McDowell’s earnest, if ultimately underwhelming, sophomore feature. But one shouldn’t dismiss its bold integrity, particularly in a cinematic age where such mindful works tend to be ignored.
In a remarkable discovery, Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) finds what generations of scientists, researchers, and various ideologists could never unveil: definitive proof of an afterlife. Opting not to focus on the nitty-gritty details, The Discovery doesn’t delve into the semantics, but rather the aftermath of such a shocking realization, which is widespread suicide. Believing our everyday life is merely a temporary placeholder keeping us from our truest existence, everyone from celebrities to athletes to high school cheerleaders take their own life, hoping to find their truest purpose in the next realm. One of the few people who stay alive in our seemingly pointless world, however, is Will Harbor (Jason Segel), Dr. Thomas’ neurologist son, who has trouble believing in — or, at least, accepting — his father’s life-altering, deathly impactful revelation.
On a ferry boat headed towards Dr. Harbor’s remote island estate, in an attempt to communicate more directly with his estranged, isolated workaholic father, Will meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a troubled lone wolf who doesn’t easily warm up to other people. Upon reaching the island, Will abruptly saves Isla from her own suicide attempt and helps her settle in under the care of his father, who runs a cult-like retreat with some of the few surviving members in the area. Dr. Harbor is on the brink of his latest scientific discovery, a device that’ll put living people in direct contact with the dead through the now-known afterlife, but Will remains hesitant. Alongside Isla and his eccentric, outspoken younger brother, Toby (Jesse Plemons), Will realizes Dr. Harbor’s latest invention provides more questions than answers in their messy, complicated world(s).
It’s an ambitious, ambiguous, richly complex drama, filled with meaty, deep-seated thoughts about our morality and onward, and its desire to explore such dense notions is refreshingly, undoubtedly intriguing, especially in such a visual manner. Sadly, however, The Discovery is perhaps a little too loaded with objectives, reflections, and intelligent feelings for its own good. In its trim 104-minute frame, The Discovery is too quick to examine its heady concepts ahead of its flimsy characters, which makes the more character-focused second half lack the emotional heft it desires. It also doesn’t help that McDowell’s latest often indulges in the predictable, eye-rolling cliches that The One I Love, admittedly, found clever and interesting ways to ignore or subvert. Whether it’s a romance angle or a melodramatic climatic sacrifice, The Discovery seems above the foreseeable turns it stubbornly makes in the last 40 minutes, which is even more frustrating when you consider all the things McDowell’s film did right in the first half.
The Discovery‘s cloudy, desolate atmosphere, communicated very beautifully by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Victoria), is stunning and effectively bleak. The accomplished cast, similarly, all give commendable-to-great performances, with Mara, Plemons and Riley Keough, as the mysterious Lacey, standing out above the rest. Redford, meanwhile, lends his dutiful, stirring gravitas to his pivotal supporting role, while Segel, in another dramatic turn after his great interpretation of David Foster Wallace in 2015’s severely-overlooked biopic The End of the Tour, feels slightly miscast in the lead role, yet his performance is no less introspective, considerate and longing. It’s a shame that his chemistry with Mara is not only lacking but non-existent, especially in later scenes. The missing sizzle between these two otherwise exceptional performers ultimately keeps The Discovery from reaching the true depths of its searching finale.
The Discovery reminds you of various recent/not-so-recent grounded-yet-intellectual high-concept thinkers like Another Earth, Vanilla Sky, The Lobster and, most especially, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is unquestionably a major influence here. Particularly with the casting of a comedic actor in a rare, demanding dramatic turn. It’s slow, methodical pace isn’t going to suit everyone’s fancy, and its mindful approach is certainly not what’s in every viewer’s best interest. Yet, despite its glaring, tragic flaws, The Discovery is exactly the sort of metaphoric, brooding indie sleeper I typically welcome with open arms and a hungry, rapturous mind. There’s no exception this time.
Perhaps it’s telling that such an idea-driven movie was released, quite unceremoniously, exclusively on Netflix, without any semblance of a theatrical release — away from its Sundance debut. Even with its rock solid, high-profile cast and its universal idealism, such works of contemplative fiction tend to be unjustly overlooked by (most) major studio heads in favor of continued sequels or prequels or remakes or reboots or sometimes fruitless, if almost always forced, attempts at multi-cinematic universes from various different properties, comic book-related or otherwise. It’s a shame, but it’s life. Thankfully, though, there are still filmmakers willing (and able) to look up and beyond.