Jason Segel and Rooney Mara are an unlikely central pairing in this low-key sci-fi about the discovery of an afterlife.
With the grim, soulless atmosphere of Trump’s inauguration hanging in the air at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it seems almost perversely fitting to consider what might lie on the other side. Expectations were high for this latest effort from writer/director Charlie McDowell, whose previous feature The One I Love screened here to wide acclaim three years ago.
The Discovery boasts an equally strong cast. Robert Redford plays elusive scientist Dr Thomas Habor, renowned for discovering the existence of an afterlife. So enthralled are some by this idea that millions have attempted suicide (to see what it’s like). One even blows his brains out, live on air, when Harbor is interviewed by a TV reporter (Mary Steenburgen). For the most part, though, he is holed up in a grand country pile with a slew of disciples, including son Toby (Jesse Plemons) and loner Lacey (Riley Keough) at his disposal. Their focus: uncovering what the afterlife actually looks like – with Harbor serving as the guinea pig, plugged into some mysterious device.
This scientific arrangement is soon thrown into doubt by the arrival of Harbor’s eldest son, Will (Jason Segel), who has made it over on a curiously empty ferry, save for the presence of surly platinum-blonde Isla (Rooney Mara). Will, it transpires, has been estranged from his father for some time, is still grieving his late mother, and disapproves of his father’s work. But even he finds himself getting involved with the task at hand, at one point carting a corpse out of the local hospital, in a welcome sequence of light relief.
Redford excels as the singular doctor – his best performance in years – and it’s only a shame that his character feels slightly underdeveloped. Similarly, while Mara is typically excellent as the would-be love interest of Segel’s grouchy protagonist, her character feels little more than a vague sketch. It doesn’t help that there is zero chemistry between this most unlikely of lead pairings.
As likeable as Segel is, his character requires a more haunting, darker persona – a Tom Hardy, say, or a Colin Farrell – to ring true. (It’s even more curious to think what might have been had Nicholas Hoult not dropped out due to scheduling conflicts.) Oddly, too, given its subject matter, and its strong opening salvo, the action plays out in a rather ho-hum fashion, lacking the energy and urgency that is so clearly needed.
It’s not all bad. In addition to fine turns from Redford and Mara, Plemons makes the most of his screen time, clearly enjoying flexing his chops as the youngest Harbor son with some neat comic timing to boot. Riley Keough also continues to impress, here tackling the troubled Lacey effectively. And the film is handsomely shot by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovien. But one can’t help but feel that the whole thing would have played out with a greater impact had Segel simply produced and passed the lead opportunity over to someone else. As it stands, The Discovery is by turns fascinating and frustrating, but certainly not without its moments.
Published 23 Jan 2017
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