Hollywood has long been drawn to the glow of the afterlife, posing what-ifs about reversing misdeeds or seeking philosophical resolutions to the mysteries that await us upon death. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the despondent George Bailey realized how different the world would be without him. In the comedy “Heaven Can Wait,” Warren Beatty played a football star trying to escape God’s clutch after an angel pulls his trigger too soon. “Flatliners” found med students running experiments to spot the great beyond. The treacly “What Dreams May Come” presented heaven as a phantasmagoric watercolor painting.
“The Discovery,” which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival and hits Netflix on March 31, blends some of the same tropes that steered the aforementioned movies with the memory-warping sensibilities of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It is a curious litter of ideas that requires a second viewing to fully understand, or so I’m hoping.
Gray skies saturate “The Discovery,” as one might expect from a world in which a scientist’s declaration of a provable afterlife has prompted waves of suicides. Offing yourself is a “convenient way to escape pain,” a loner named Isla (Rooney Mara) tells a loner named Will (Jason Segel), not long before the latter — the son of the prophetic scientist — rescues Isla from the ocean, where she hopes to drown. If bliss or peace or some other ideal is as simple as a self-inflicted gunshot, why not take the bullet? That’s the thinking of some 4 million people who have killed themselves during the two years since the scientist’s “discovery” was announced. The statistic rises constantly. Electronic boards hanging in doctor’s offices and on the otherwise empty ferry where Isla and Will meet tally the suicide toll, next to a cheery disclaimer encouraging everyone to stay alive.
On the other side of Will and Isla’s ferry ride is the scientist’s home, or rather the mansion he bought to house a small tribe of suicide survivors. There, he escapes the prying gaze of the larger world and continues his experimentation. Is he remorseful? Not one bit. Have his followers anointed him something of a cult leader? Maybe. Does he know such theatrics are folly, even if the hypotheses are true? Certainly. Maybe you really can have it all, if you’re a white man with messiah-like qualities. He’s cultivated an army of cronies milling about in jumpsuits, led by his other son (a bedraggled Jesse Plemons, who continues to pick interesting roles post-“Breaking Bad”).
“The Discovery” is a weird little movie, strikingly intimate for a yarn with such grave societal implications. Except for the suicide count and a news report announcing the discovery’s anniversary, we don’t taste the precise breadth of this newfound afterlife, though one can gather it’s resulted in an unravelling of the human condition. The revelation is certainly taking its toll on the mansion’s residents, who are tempted by the secretive and possibly dangerous machine that supposedly demonstrates the afterlife.
When a rogue disciple (Riley Keough), angry that she’s been kept from the device, challenges the scientist’s favored treatment of Isla, she is banished from the grounds. Stay in line, or else your leader can no longer help. From there, the truths of the scientist’s work emerge, cryptically and with life-altering implications. Alternate realities, warped memories, reversed regrets and questions about the will to live bubble up, even if some of them become bigger than McDowell and Justin Lader’s script can handle. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ sniveling score intensifies “The Discovery,” as though exploring its own kinetic limitations while the characters learn more.
The film’s revelations take a toll on the audience, too. To outline too many specifics would be a disservice to “The Discovery,” but the ending is frustratingly confusing. And yet, I still want another shot at cracking it. The story’s what-if tactics befit director Charlie McDowell, who made 2014’s sleek (and far superior) “The One I Love,” in which Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass play a struggling married couple handed an odd opportunity to return to their honeymoon phase, sort of. McDowell sets “The Discovery” on a similar thematic path. Too bad it’s more interested in mood than precision of concept.
Segel and Mara make an enchanting pair, their hardened eyes softening as a kinship grows. They are each other’s manic pixie dream, drawing out a searching quality that complements those gray skies and confounding themes. Like many movies of its kind, the second half of “The Discovery” rushes to tick off answers to the complicated questions posed. The score crescendoes and the story’s fatalistic future is determined, but Mara and Segel remain grounded. New chapters await their characters. Heaven can wait.