If climate change is an inconvenient truth, then overwhelming scientific evidence of the afterlife would be an immobilizing one. And so it is in Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery,” a provocative slice of theoretical sci-fi that isn’t about death so much as the things that mortality forces into focus.
By turns resoundingly human and regretfully half-baked, the film wears its influences on its sleeve, beginning with a brilliant prologue that recalls the opening sequence of “Children of Men.” Doctor Thomas Harber (Robert Redford, commanding in his small but vital role) is introduced on a television monitor, a mediated version of himself flickering on the screen. He’s preparing to give his first interview in the six months since he’s found compelling data in support of the idea that something — brainwaves, energy, a soul — leaves the body after it expires. During those six months, more than a million people have committed suicide, unable to resist the tenuous promise of starting over.
The bulk of the story is set some 18 months later, as Harber’s skeptical son Will (Jason Segel) returns to the seaside Rhode Island town where he grew up — more specifically, to the gothic estate where his dad has been holed up since his lone public appearance (McDowell makes exquisite use of the mansions along the cliffs of Newport, a richly evocative location that hasn’t enjoyed a starring role worth its stature since the last time Redford dropped by in 1974). There’s all manner of mysterious business taking place on the grounds, the most visible of which is Harber seems to have started a cult, complete with devotees in color-coded jumpsuits.
Will seems to have come home at the perfect time, as his scruffy, more paternally loyal brother hints that he and Dr. Harber have just made another breakthrough. The sibling role is played by Jesse Plemons, and his casting is one of several details that evokes Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” another anxiously scored film about a group of desperate people blindly following a leader into the dark.
All these questions are intriguing, but Isla (Rooney Mara) is the one that Will is most interested in answering. They’re the only two passengers on a ferry surrounded by frigid water, and their meet-cute hums with the same off-kilter electricity that galvanized the lovers from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” In a loquacious and emotionally stunted role, Mara vibes off a new energy while retaining her signature conviction (crucial in a film that requires viewers to buy its high-concept premise up front and in cash). She’s a perfect foil for the numbed resentment that Segel brings to the table. With a shock of white hair and a well-earned death wish, Isla seems like a perfect catch for a guy seeking a manic pixie dream girl at the end of the world, but McDowell’s script — written with repeat collaborator Justin Lader — mercifully has more interesting things on its mind. Will cares, but doesn’t believe. Isla believes, but doesn’t care. Entire dimensions could fit inside the differences between them. The familiarity of their rapport, like many of the references in the film, only strengthens the sense that everything (and everyone) on screen is trying to unmoor itself from an invisible anchor.
McDowell, making good on the promise of 2014’s similarly speculative “The One I Love,” is clearly drawn to the rift between fantasy and reality; both features hinge on complicated love stories, but the relationship between those two planes of existence is the twisted romance that really sparks his imagination. “They can’t exist in the same space,” Will declares, but “The Discovery” is most effective — and most dangerously inviting — when it bends its genre trappings towards dramatizing all the ways in which they do.
Much like his lighter and less ambitious debut, McDowell’s second film is haunted by roads not taken and choices not made. See-sawing between acceptance and remorse, he seduces his characters with second chances, throwing them at a deviously knotted idea and watching them untangle their way towards some kind of self-understanding. The narrative is flecked with great moments (Redford hasn’t been this harsh and human in ages) and glazed with arrestingly bitter blue-gray cinematography that makes the whole of Newport prickle with loss. However, the clarity Will finds at the end of his search is far more enticing than the journey.
Cosmic implications in the movie’s third act suggest “The Discovery” is poised to dive off the deep end and follow Will as he pioneers new layers of space and time, but the film lends him a trail map that deprives him — and us — the satisfaction of finding some measure of truth for himself. McDowell has crafted a story shaped by unanswerable questions and leverages the specificity of its destination in order to illuminate the universality of its journey. But if his telling has a way of getting that backwards, it doesn’t fully obscure the view when “The Discovery” looks over its shoulder and into the void. Besides, regrets make us who we are. It’s not possible to live without them, and it’s not possible to die without them, either.
“The Discovery” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It will be available on Netflix on March 31st.