Imagine that science has proven the afterlife. Imagine that we can say with 100% certainty that there’s a place beyond the physical world, and that all of us go there when we die. Now imagine that upon hearing this news, people all over the planet start offing themselves en mass, in hopes of getting to that place and escaping the wide-ranging, varied details of their lives: Their travails, their failures, their successes, their dreams, their nightmares, their joy, their pain, their losses.
That, in summary, is the stuff of Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery, except that instead of actually concerning himself with the profound ways the revelation of an actual, knowable hereafter might change humanity, he looks inward toward the existential moping of his two unremarkable and uninspired lead characters. The Discovery chafes for two reasons above all others: It wastes an absolutely fantastic premise, and it sends McDowell tumbling down a creative stairwell following his excellent 2014 debut, The One I Love, a film that’s similarly more fixated on people than plot, posing questions about identity and intimacy couched within romantic relationships. Structurally it’s loosey-goosey, a flick that gives off improvisational vibes, but that’s just fine: The One I Love works as an exercise in conceit above conflict.
The Discovery doesn’t. The Discovery, in point of fact, screams for discipline. This is a movie that demands to be plot-driven, and its opening minutes even suggest that it is: We learn right away that the afterlife exists, and we learn that Doctor Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) is the man credited with the discovery. The film starts as he prepares to give a live interview with a TV journalist (played inexplicably by Mary Steenburgen), but they’re interrupted when one of her crewmen blows his brains out as the cameras roll. (It’s an uncomfortable moment in its own context, and also in context with the last year of cinema, which saw the release of not one, but two movies about Christine Chubbuck.) Why suicide? Why not! If there’s an afterlife, after all, then death loses all meaning we’ve ascribed to it throughout our species’ reign over the globe. Even murder isn’t really murder anymore, a notion explored in brief and summarily abandoned before the third act clumsily demands its reintroduction.
The moment the film looks poised to chew through the meatier concerns proposed through McDowell’s big central idea, it shifts gears dramatically (and in every sense of the word). We’re suddenly, forcefully stuck with Will (Jason Segel), Thomas’ son, a neurologist adorned with the same hangdog stare as every character Segel is hired to play. Will is traveling to the remote island town where Thomas is headquartered, intent on persuading his dad to tell everyone that he was wrong about the afterlife, believing that lying will end humanity’s suicide epidemic, as if that genie could be forced back into its bottle. In transit, he makes acquaintances with a woman named Isla (Rooney Mara), and later on saves, her despite her protestations when she tries to drown herself in the ocean. He’s a hell of a guy, that Will.
Once The Discovery maneuvers Will, Isla, and Thomas into the same setting, it crawls. The change in velocity is so staggering that it’s almost impressive, except that it’s infuriating. Confined to such an insulated cinematic space, we have no way of engaging with the world that McDowell flirts with building from the film’s outset: Instead we’re stuck in a decrepit manse peppered with retro technology, vultured from the aesthetic corpse of 1980s science fiction, where the macro horrors happening outside of the house’s walls dissipate and narrow down into the micro ennui of Will and Isla—and to a far lesser extent Thomas and Will’s scraggly, mumbly brother, Toby (Jesse Plemons).
Will can’t forgive Thomas for his part in the death of his mother prior to the discovery. We can’t forgive McDowell for drilling down on something as rote as parental passing. It’s not that there’s no room for personal tragedies in The Discovery’s dramatic scope; it’s that the dramatic scope very rapidly encompasses the personal alone, and refuses to tangle more than it must with the sobering philosophical quandaries presented by Thomas’ research. Death is window dressing here, almost literally. Posters adorn hospital walls, urging anybody who bothers to read them to choose this life. We see digital counters, too, ticking up the total number of people who have chosen that life. The Discovery is saturated with reminders of its concept in its stylization, but that just makes McDowell’s decision to elide an adult confrontation with that concept all the more frustrating.
His casting doesn’t help, either. Segel is a surprisingly adept dramatic actor, but he seems lost here, either outmatched or perhaps let down by the material; he works best when he’s allowed opportunities for comedy, but whenever those opportunities arise in The Discovery, they clang against its overarching funereal tone. This isn’t a movie with room for even quiet laughs, and so Segel feels miscast (particularly against Redford, whose casual ease with acting feels damn near intimidating no matter how charming he gets). Mara feels more at home with McDowell’s writing, but she’s given little to do other than to first reject and then fall in love with Will, for seemingly no reason other than the script necessitates it.
Of course, you come to understand why in The Discovery’s final minutes, and there very much is a “why.” But McDowell’s hasty denouement only reinforces why his film is such a disappointment: It’s a hard 180 from the film he offers us from the beginning, one whose familiarity ultimately concedes its triteness.
Director: Charlie McDowell
Writer: Charlie McDowell, Justin Lader
Starring: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, Ron Canada, Riley Keough
Release Date: March 31, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.