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On either side of a debate is the belief that both are correct in what they stand for. People choose a path based on evidence, but also in the conviction of those doing the debating. Most times, the side chosen is what you live with and that’s that. With The Discovery, a compelling little mystery from Netflix, the side you choose is your life, and it carries great weight no matter where you stake your claim.
It begins with an interview, as a television journalist (Mary Steenburgen) questions a scientist named Thomas Harper (Robert Redford), who is giving his first public talk since offering proof that there is life after death, or as he calls it, another plane of existence. She confronts him on the aftermath, where millions of people around the world have taken their own lives in trying to ‘get there.’
A year later, as the body count rises, we meet Will (Jason Segel), a neurosurgeon and son of Thomas, who is unconvinced by this discovery. On the way to meet Thomas, riding on a ferry, he comes upon Isla (Rooney Mara), with whom he strikes some common ground, and the two are soon drawn into Thomas’s elaborate, isolated compound, where he runs a cult-like community of people yearning to learn more, some who have tried to die but failed, and others in pursuit of the science. All the while, the two grow close, even as she experiments with her own suicidal thoughts.
Directed by Charlie McDowell, The Discovery ponders a number of existential questions and in many ways, makes it compelling enough to keep this film on track by itself. While it is not the film it portends to be at its start, something that hints of a global story, it is instead a far smaller experience within the confines of a small set among few people, even as the world outside hovers in the background.
There is probably an expectation most have about an afterlife movie, as there have been plenty, and yet The Discovery dismisses most of these for a more placid and conventional story that mixes romance, black comedy, and bits of mystery, most that find their mark. Perhaps best of the three is the dynamic between Isla and Will, a story that could have easily stood on its own as both Mara and Segel have great chemistry and make following their thread the most fun.
Least so is Thomas’ compound and the oddly-structured experiments surrounding a drink-the-Kool-Aid mentality among the jumpsuit-wearing followers. Redford is, of course, strong but less convincing as he preaches his findings. These moments are meant to be tinged with growing menace, and indeed Redford convinces, but McDowell can’t keep the tension as high as it feels like it should be, rather tempering it to a more reflective pace.
That said, there’s a lot to like about this experimental production that is kept afloat by a tight script and terrific performances, including another great turn by Jesse Plemons, who continues to find his voice as a serious actor. Purposefully solemn, The Discovery is a delicately-balanced morality play that has tremendous ambition and may have some clunky early moments before truly coming together in a spellbinding, and emotionally-devastating finish that make this well worth a watch.
Movie description: The Discovery is a 2017 drama about a world in the aftermath of a remarkable scientific discovery that has profound effect, especially for two people who are slowly falling in love.
Director(s): Charlie McDowell
Actor(s): Robert Redford, Mary Steenburgen, Brian McCarthy
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller