Regret is a powerful drug. It can push people to do fantastic or terrible things in seeming equal measure, and the opportunity to correct or even erase the things that led us to those regrets in the first place can send us down some dangerous paths. In Charlie McDowell's The Discovery, each of the three leads are driven almost purely by regret, all of them desperately searching for a way to easily pave over that one moment, which is something we all have. We're all familiar with that one confounding instance where a single different choice or action or direction or word would have resulted in something other than the symphony of pain that came afterwards, and our powerlessness to go back and make such a small adjustment can start as a psychic ingrown hair that grows into an infected boil.
The Discovery follows Jason Segel's Will Harber as he arrives at a Rhode Island estate where he hopes to convince his father (Robert Redford) to stop his scientific work, which has led to a discovery that more or less confirms existence of an afterlife, and whose implications have led to a staggering increase in the number of suicides the world over. Wracked with guilt over the deaths caused by work he helped his father start, Will arrives at his father's mansion — often photographed through gnarled tree branches or shown obscured by fog — and is immediately disturbed to see that Redford's Dr. Thomas Harber has staffed his grounds with colored-jumpsuit-wearing acolytes, all of whom seem to have been brought in after failed suicide attempts. Tagging along is Rooney Mara's Isla, whom Will met on the ferry to the island before intervening in her attempted suicide. Concerned, he brings her along to Thomas' estate, and as the two bond, they learn that Thomas has furthered his work. It turns out that his initially-revelatory Discovery has been supplemented with a new development that threatens to shake the very foundation of reality, as it's presently understood.
The Discovery explores life bound by regret, and the cyclical behavioral patterns that emerge when it fully takes hold. Thomas is almost singularly motivated by the regret he feels over destroying his family with his work, so he's constructed a new one based solely around his work. The control he exhibits over the members of his community is decidedly cult-like, colored jumpsuits and strict rules representing the stranglehold Thomas has developed over his "family" members in the wake of his biological family's destruction at his own hand. He exerts that control by way of psychological manipulation, including a questionnaire that echoes — if a bit hollowly — the incredible auditing sequence from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Thomas' tragic drive has ripped his family apart, destroyed his personal life, cracked his son's very existence, and rippled outwards to potentially destroy the lives of millions.
To say that Thomas is consumed by regret is an understatement: even though the script makes it clear in the opening scene that he lives in total denial, McDowell's direction constantly reminds us of the inescapability that Thomas' discovery represents by allowing technology to frequently creep into the frame, especially when it shouldn't. Wires and diodes and monitors and machine parts are a constant presence in The Discovery, their cold and metallic properties reinforced by the film's muted palette. Thick, oppressive grays are combined with swirling seafoam greens and blues, the resultant effect lending the film a dreamlike sense of fluidity.
Segel has acquitted himself fairly well in dramatic fare in the past, but his performance here relies too much on the same look of consternation. When Rooney Mara's Isla asks Segel's Will if he ever "leaves [his] own head, even for a second," I couldn't help but scoff a little bit in agreement. Will's downerism is understandable, but his chemistry and connection with Isla is not. His saving her occurs after their initial meeting, but seems motivated by little other than an altruistic regard for all human life. Conversely, Isla overtly resents being saved, nevertheless developing a romantic connection with Will for no apparent reason. She's a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl archetype (think Kate Winlset from Eternal Sunshine by way of...no, nevermind, just think of Kate Winslet from Eternal Sunshine) and he's a total Eeyore; his attraction to her seems to extend only as far as his stated observation of her physical attractiveness, and hers seems to stem from little more than some sort of sense of debt.
McDowell's direction is more than competent, and the photography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen captures Rhode Island's oppressive fog banks and imposing seascapes, letting them hover over the film and its characters like Thomas Harber's past deeds. It's in his script, though, (co-authored with The One I Love writer Justin Lader), that the film's weakness lies. Will's true motivation is never effectively made clear, and when the film finally plays its last card — by way of an uncomfortable and very specific "I'm a part of your memory" character info-dump — it explicitly tells us that Will's arc has been completed, but utterly fails to depict exactly what it was he accomplished, changed, or learned to allow for that arc's completion. Similarly, the makes some deeply cynical and nihilistic implications about the very nature of reality and the afterlife (to get further into them would involve spoilers, so I'll post a separate article getting into that FOR ALL OF THE PEOPLE WHO I KNOW TOTALLY READ THIS BLOG), as well as human beings themselves, but fails to address or develop these implications in any meaningful way, instead just dropping them on the audience towards the end. In the end, The Discovery spends time pushing Will and Isla's romance at the expense of exploring the impact its late-stage plot developments have on its central themes and ideas.
With its first act hobbled by some seriously bruising of expository dialogue and its third hamstrung by an ending so rushed that it fails to address the number of narrative questions it winds up raising in its conclusion, The Discovery is most enjoyable in its middle section, when we get to watch Isla and Will connect and things take on a slightly more investigatory note. Unfortunately, the ending is an ultimately frustrating one, serving only to muddy the film's thematics and leave its message as muted as its color palette.