Over the last few years, it’s been nearly impossible to avoid Netflix’s original programming. House of Cards, Stranger Things, and the Marvel properties have become required viewing. Overshadowed by these imposing peers is a collection of smaller scale successes. “The Discovery,” a sci-fi drama directed by Charlie McDowell is one such gem.
“The Discovery” shares a lot of DNA with one of its Netflix brothers, “The OA.” They both deal with similar themes, and even plot points, but diverge in overall tone. While “The OA” paints in largely surreal hues, “The Discovery” offers a more grounded take on the metaphysical quandary of what happens when we die. If you enjoyed either one of these, you’ll likely enjoy the other. Viewers should be forewarned though. This film deals extensively with suicide.
McDowell has assembled a quality cast, anchored by Jason Segel and Rooney Mara. Segel manages to simultaneously bring charm and a weighty seriousness in his role as the protagonist. He plays a neurologist sorting out a world where the existence of the afterlife has been scientifically proven. Robert Redford plays his father, the scientist responsible for the titular discovery. His performance is on the restrained side, but bordering on flat. Ultimately it’s the right choice. His dialogue easily could’ve drifted in melodrama. Mara portrays a woman haunted by her past that violently intersects with Segel’s character. It’s the kind of part that’s become her bread and butter without seeming stale. She does an excellent job emoting through terse lines and simple facial expressions.
The rest of the cast is rather spartan. The film only has six truly significant roles. Jesse Plemon shines as Segel’s dimwitted younger brother. His turn as a disheveled man lost in events beyond his comprehension strikes a tone similar to his performance in the second season of FX’s Fargo series. Plemon’s delivers an excellent physicality that makes him nearly unrecognizable. Ron Canada, who I best know from “Adventures in Babysitting”, plays a lovable Igor to Redford’s Frankenstein. McDowell, as the son of famed actors Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (who makes a cameo) is no stranger to second generation stardom. He extends this step further by casting Elvis’s own granddaughter, Riley Keough, in a pivotal role.
The dreary weather of Rhode Island could easily be considered among the most important cast members. The overcast skies, frequent rain, and frigid beaches provide the perfect atmosphere for a movie that has suicide as one of its central themes. The primary location, a dilapidated hospital converted into a cult headquarters, also deserves special credit. So, consider that a little shoutout to an underappreciated job, location scout.
This film is in the same vein as McDowell’s first feature, “The One I Love.” This partially comes from working with the same writer, Justin Lader. Both movies use established comedic actors in a serious role, and start from an interesting premise. I do disagree with their take on where this premise would lead though. Finding incontrovertible evidence of an afterlife would shake society as a whole. I just don’t buy the idea that mass suicides would be the singular manifestation of such a revelation. Accepting that caveat, the movie delivers in the end. Things aren’t quite wrapped up in a bow, and like “The One I Love” there is at least one major question left to be answered. It isn’t perfect, but definitely worth an afternoon viewing on a gloomy day.