Imagine that the afterlife has been scientifically proven to exist. How would the world react? What would happen to the person who made that discovery? These are just some of the captivating questions at the start of Charlie McDowell’s new film, The Discovery, which debuts on Netflix today.
The Discovery provides many of those answers right up front. In this world, lots of people would kill themselves. They’d give up this life for a chance at whatever was next. And the person who discovered it? His name is Thomas, played by Robert Redford, and he’s blamed for those deaths, which alienates not only him, but also his family.
So yes, The Discovery is a downer. And, as the film progresses, that doesn’t change much. McDowell’s world is a gray place, both figuratively and literally. The characters are all very quiet and move slowly. The places they visit are foggy, blue, and bland. This feels like a place where dying to escape doesn’t really seem like a bad idea, especially if there’s a promise of something more.
And yet, in the center of all this gloom is another story, that of Will (Jason Segel) meeting Isla (Rooney Mara). At first the two are at odds, but as they spend more time together, a relationship develops. Eventually, they try to solve a mystery and end up providing a nice counterpoint to the morose look of the film. Maybe life is worth living after all?
McDowell’s last film, The One I Love, was a movie best seen without knowing anything about it, and The Discovery is similar to that. So much of what makes it worth talking about would translate into huge spoilers. A few of these elements are calculated and predictable, but others are not. Thankfully, the story poses so many questions you are continually engaged with the material, and the performances are compelling. That’s a good thing, too, because McDowell’s tone becomes taxing at times. The film is a bit of a struggle to watch—but with each new twist, things open up a bit until the end, which is really quite moving.
The Discovery is an introspective movie. It’s very small and very smart with aspirations greater than itself, and for the most part, it meets those expectations. But you’d never watch The Discovery on a whim, looking for some lightweight entertainment—this is movie that demands your full concentration, followed by a deep discussion after. You may even want to rewatch it to pick up things you missed the first time. The Discovery is never really fun, but it is fascinating and its ambition is admirable.