The Discovery movie review: Netflix, Jason Segel offer dreamy twist on the afterlife
The Discovery movie review: Netflix continues to make film festival fare available to the rest of us. This one, directed by Charlie McDowell and starring Jason Segel, Rooney Mara and Robert Redford, was the talk of Sundance. And rightly so.movie reviews Updated: Mar 31, 2017 11:46 IST
Director - Charlie McDowell
Cast - Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough
Rating - 3/5
Human ego knows no bounds. But it is humbled, every time, when confronted with one concept. The afterlife.
In many ways, it symbolises our insignificance in the universe, our inability to fully – or even partially – comprehend what is going on around us and how we fit into it all. We’d like to think there’s a purpose, however minuscule, to our lives… a meaning, hidden within the mundane. There’s a comfort in that. It helps you fight more fights. Just the belief, however flimsy, that there is a grander scheme in play, and another chapter to existence once this one, the one in which you’re spending valuable time reading about a movie closes, is the bubble we need.
But, to borrow the motto of my favourite café in my favourite hilly town, “There is no good explanation for what is happening here…”
And for now (at least for the purposes of this review), this is the truth with which we must operate.
The Discovery, the second film by the wonderfully gifted new filmmaker Charlie McDowell, is bold enough to ask these questions – and bolder, for suggesting it has answers.
It opens with a rather jolting scene that invites us, most unpleasantly, into its world. It’s a world in which a very intelligent man has discovered the existence of an afterlife. It’s a discovery that makes him into an instant celebrity. Imagine if Elon Musk were to invent time travel tomorrow, and as a kicker, make it commercially available. It would alter the very foundations of our reality. It would topple governments, dismantle the concepts of free will, democracy, independence. New religions would be born, and new gods would be appointed as old ones made way.
But very soon after Thomas Harbor (played by the great Robert Redford) announces his discovery, the world decides it is time to commit suicide. Not collectively, of course. Despite everything, all the world is not a Sofia Coppola movie, and we aren’t but Kirsten Dunst’s in it. However, as it turns out, the inside of Charlie McDowell’s mind in many ways resembles the inside of Sofia Coppola’s. The Discovery is similar in tone (moody, shoegazing, very mumbly) to some of her movies, especially The Virgin Suicides and Somewhere -- at least until it tries to be a more sullen version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Obviously, for a film in which the thought of suicide lurks like Bill Murray would in a Wes Anderson movie -- ever present, but not always in plain sight -- this is slightly odd, tonally speaking. And as the suicide rate increases alarmingly in the months following Harbor’s announcement, and when he can’t bear being in the spotlight any longer, he purchases and retreats into a grand countryside estate, where no one hears from him ever again.
Until one day, his distant, and openly critical son (played by Jason Segel, whose career has taken a refreshingly dramatic turn, with this, and 2015’s The End of the Tour) tries to seek him out. Along the way, he chances upon a young woman (Rooney Mara) trying to drown herself in the sea. He saves her, the rare optimist that he is in this world, and with subtle, wordless looks, an understated romantic relationship is formed. Together, they come knocking on Thomas Harbor’s door, demanding the answers nobody seems to be interested in demanding, only to find that he never stopped working. To their shock, inside the labyrinthine mansion, Harbor never stopped researching.
And he’s on the brink of something big.
Like McDowell’s debut feature, The One I Love, this one also suffers a similar fate. Both films are born out of a fantastic central idea, which, undoubtedly ambitious, is made relatable through an intimate human story. But in the end, ironically, it is the same idea that becomes too heavy for both films’ wobbly foundations to bear, and ends up being the culprit behind the disintegration of their third acts. While The One I Love was saved, in my opinion thanks to the presence of Mark Duplass (there is no film he can’t make better by just being there), The Discovery unfortunately balks under the immensity of its own premise.
It’s simply too obtuse, too emotionally distant, too frustrating. And yet, it won’t turn you off Charlie McDowell. It would take a truly jaded person to not be excited for what he does next.
In the meanwhile, in case this doesn’t satisfy your hunger for afterlife-related fiction, you could always watch The OA or San Junipero, the best episode of Black Mirror’s third season (both can also be found, like The Discovery, on Netflix), or, you could finally do the right thing and watch HBO’s The Leftovers before it dies this year.