Cast: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough, Robert Redford. Directed by: Charlie McDowell.
We recently took a look at the films and TV shows being released on platforms like Netflix, and this was one of the two big releases mentioned. In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, therefore, we’re taking a good look at The Discovery.
Directed by Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen), The Discovery is is a fairly bland title for what is certainly an intriguing film. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), discovers that there is a plane of existence beyond the physical world of life, an afterlife of sorts. This revelation prompts a spate of suicides across the planet. On the two year anniversary of the discovery, Thomas’ son Will (Jason Segel), returns to be with his father at a strange suicide prevention retreat, where on the way he meets Isla (Rooney Mara), who appears to be someone he could potentially fall for.
What good science fiction does, is present a world in which questions of morality, or society and its fears, are brought forward in an entertaining way. The best forms of science fiction take interesting concepts and they play around with them. A prime example of this is the low-budget mind-bender Primer, which looks at time travel. In The Discovery, the idea of fate, the idea of memory, regret and of course human mortality are brought to the fore.
What McDowell does so well is that with easy confidence he mixes genres like a seasoned pro. This is a film that is happily and nominally a thoughtful science fiction film, but it also has an intimate human drama at its core. What the film is essentially about is guilt, the sense of guilt that builds from regret, and how that can become someone’s entire life.
In the lead role, Jason Segel avoids the sort of overly showy funny-man-does-serious that you usually see. It’s not a Steve Carrell or Jim Carrey, but his slightly taller than normal look makes him seem almost at odds with everyone else. But in his every-man Will there is a character that you can believe in, he’s not exceptionally handsome, but not ugly, and he’s a little quiet, living in the shadow of his famous father, and deceased mother.
Similarly, the detached, almost uninterested quality that Rooney Mara can sometimes give off works well for the enigmatic Isla. At one point she’s a possible contender for manic pixie dream girl status, but is steered clear by boyfriend-director-writer McDowell. It’s a portrait of a woman who is almost otherworldly, suicidal but content to continue living. Detached from the world she lives in, but intrigued by its possibilities.
Around Segel and Mara, the supporting actors keep the film afloat. Veteran of screen Ron Canada is the sort of reliable type, giving easy charm in his limited role as Cooper, an assistant-type to Will’s father. Riley Keough continues to use her acting skills to step out of her famous family shadow (her granddad is the King of Rock-n-Roll) as the sweet but somewhat unhinged Lacey. Portraying Will’s brother Toby, Jesse Plemmons is a dead-ringer for an early 00s Philip Seymour Hoffman. Of course Robert Redford, who plays Will’s father, makes acting look so easy that you begin to resent the fact that you’ll never be as effortlessly cool as The Great Gatsby himself.
The film is not without flaws, however, and really the main flaw here comes from its score, which sounds like a bad tribute to Thomas Newman. The film has a score that at times is haunting, and compliments the sort of near blackness of the skies, and the quiet graveyard of the coastal town where the story takes place. In one scene makes the strange boarding school manor that Thomas has made his home appear a lot like The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel. But at other times the film has upbeat music; in one scene in which Isla and Will steal a corpse (plot reasons, it’s complicated), the music is overly comedic and undercuts some of the broiling tension.
It also doesn’t help with the storytelling that some of the ideas aren’t really investigated fully. In fact, a late moment in the film hints at an even more complex and interesting dissection of the way in which we perceive the world and our actions in it. But, this isn’t a great big Christopher Nolan film, this is the opposite, this is almost the anti-Nolan sci-fi flick. The film will no doubt be compared to Inception, but if you want a closer companion, think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a perfectly illustrated tale that when it comes to its conclusion is both open, and heartbreaking but complete and satisfying.
It’s a true case of the viewer getting from a film what they themselves bring to it. Also, at no point does the film trivialise suicide, and with the modern trend of suicide appearing as a minor, jokey plot point, this is nothing short of a miracle. Netflix has added another quality bow to their quiver with McDowell’s thought-provoking drama, one that will certainly open the door for him to get bigger jobs in the future. As for Netflix, coupling this with the lauded Beasts of No Nation, and hit dramas like House of Cards, they’re on a roll. Stream it now, you won’t regret it.