The premise for Charlie McDowell's The Discovery is so simple and poetic that it's hard to believe it hasn't been done before: A scientist discovers definitive proof of an afterlife, and the world responds with mass suicides. McDowell, who scored a sleeper hit with The One I Love, doesn't rely on special effects for his speculative fictions. But while the film is ambitious, with enough intrigue and uneasy moral quandaries to keep my attention rapt, in the end it just doesn't make the leap to the other side.
Thomas (Robert Redford), the man who has proven that after we've died the spirit goes to another plane of existence, has gone into hiding as people try to "get there." Thomas' sons Will (Jason Segel) and Toby (Jesse Plemons) arrive at their father's secluded estate. There, they discover something like a cult. Folks who've tried and failed to commit suicide hang out, and the only thing keeping them alive is Thomas' insistence that they make use of themselves on Earth. Redford is at once gentle and terrifying as their leader. Thomas's ambivalence toward suicide stirs tension in his scenes -- will he tell everyone to end it all?
Plemons also completely dissolves into his character, a burly, nonconfrontational guy who'd rather not be helping his dad develop a secret machine that will record what's happening in the brain after death. Segel, however, can't quite keep up with his co-stars, his anger and intensity glaringly on the nose. The bigger problem: We know the big secrets before Will does. McDowell masterfully hid his story's twists in The One I Love but doesn't pull it off here.