Netflix Review: The Discovery (2017)

Flawed but fascinating….

The Discovery directed by Charlie McDowell made some minor headlines at the start of 2017 as it was acquired by Netflix before its premiere at the Sundance film festival this past January. If you didn’t catch the minor hoopla; The Discovery takes place in a world where the afterlife has been proven to exist and this then leads to a major upswing in the amount of people taking their own lives to ‘get there.’ The trailers we saw were kind of portentous — not really revealing anything about where the plot would go beyond the set up but promising something maybe akin to Charlie Kaufman’s work with a more commercial cast including Jason Segel, Robert Redford and Rooney Mara.

The opening scene is an interview with the scientist who has proven the existence of a second plain of existence. This brief scene shows that Robert Redford is playing a role away from his usual wheelhouse but his vague air of arrogance works for the part and its clear that there is a certain weight on the man whose work has led to an unprecedented amount of death. The scene ends with an on air suicide and then we move forward six months. The next scenes between Jason Segel’s haunted neurologist and Rooney Mara’s bereaved misanthrope are where the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comparisons begin. These scenes on board a ferry to a remote island are very reminiscent of the early scenes with Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey’s characters in that film except here the focus is less on quirky flaws and more on doom laden philosophy in a world with a sudden lack of mystery. Through various flirtations and ponderous scenes the two of them end up in a remote retreat where Thomas (Redford) has set up shop with a quasi cult to continue his work to the next stage — actually recording the afterlife when someone leaves this mortal coil.

Discussing what works and what doesn’t about The Discovery is very difficult without going into spoilers. If you are familiar with this kind of material in this day and age then I think that you will have a certain expectation with regards to the final act in a film like this, but I will tread carefully. The first thing to know is that The Discovery is actually a good film, I can say I enjoyed it overall. It has a unique atmosphere, feeling somewhere between Nordic Noir and Jacobs Ladder, with some clever choices with regards to the lighting and colour schemes that are important to the way the story is told. Jason Segel adds another solid dramatic performance to his resume following his David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour. He is matched by Rooney Mara who in recent times has appeared somewhat calculated in her performances but here has excellent warm chemistry with Segel which is again essential to the story. The likes of Redford, Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough all provide the central pairing with the required support and are each given a suitable arc within the script. Dealing with this sort of weighty philosophical material could have been a depressing slog but director Charlie McDowell keeps the film moving along at a suitable rate, adding dark humour where appropriate and mystery that keeps you invested. McDowell clearly has a future in film and if I were Netflix I would snap him up for whatever series or original film he wants to make next.

So my problem with The Discovery basically boils down to this — The dreaded last act twist. I’m not going to reveal what the twist or twists is within the screenplay but this is one of those occasions where the rug pull was probably not entirely necessary and furthermore shows a lack of confidence by McDowell and writer Justin Lader in their story. Part of the joy of The Discovery is watching the world presented to you and these flawed characters develop within that world and what their beliefs and flaws have done to them as people. In any normal film, the work done here on this front would be more than enough. The script never lays it on thick just paints it in broad strokes and the direction and performances carry it through. I could take one twist, in fact i welcomed the first reveal, it worked. However then there is another reveal. This last reveal feels like it undermines a lot of the solid work done building up to it and amongst all of the solid character work it just feels like an odd note to end on. I understand the impulse when you work on a project with a killer concept. Often times when writing something I start with the ‘Wow’ ending and work backwards myself but I feel like McDowell and Lader really needed to go back and review once they filled in the rest of the work before their eventual goal. Even at the edit stage of the film, I wonder how they didn’t see what was working so well and then make a decision from there. It’s not quite early 90’s glossy thriller cheap twistery but it still feels misjudged somehow.

Although it’s not quite on a par with I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, The Discovery is another solid win for Netflix. It feels like a film that will be debated by people for a while and I sincerely hope it gains an audience. I look forward to whatever director Charlie McDowell does next.

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