Clint Eastwood's tough-guy star persona has translated into his work as a filmmaker in several important ways: the economic individuality of his style (untainted by the homogenizing effects of focus groups) and, in most of his recent films, an unflinching way of looking at the cold finality of death - the murder of a daughter in Mystic River, a young athlete's death in the boxing ring in Million Dollar Baby, and the sudden hard turn at the end of Gran Torino.
When it was announced that the now 80-year-old director was making a film called Hereafter, about death and the afterlife, it naturally pricked interest. The results may surprise or, more likely, bewilder Eastwood's fans.
The best part of Hereafter comes first as the film opens with a startling special-effects sequence. A French news anchor (Cécile de France) is on vacation with her producer/lover in Hawaii. She goes to a market to buy presents and, astonishingly, is immersed by a tsunami. We share her shock as the camera, at eye level, watches a wall of water engulf the village and sends her to her death, followed by a vision of the afterlife (white silhouettes of people), and then, unexpectedly, revival.
But now her old life, the political concerns and conventional news stories, have become meaningless and she is obsessed with afterlife experiences. A scientist (Marthe Keller) assures her that the evidence is "irrefutable" and Marie begins to use her journalistic clout to break the story: Death is not the end. Her dubious book publisher decides this is the kind of thing more likely to sell in gullible America than in France.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a Dickens-loving man named George (Matt Damon) is struggling with a psychic gift that he considers a curse. As a by-product of a childhood illness and subsequent brain surgery, he can touch people's hands and receive messages from the dead.
While his hustler brother (Jay Mohr) wants him to make a fortune from his ability, George prefers to avoid people and stick to his lowly factory job. A brief, abortive relationship with a neurotic young woman he meets at a cooking class (Bryce Dallas Howard) underscores his dilemma. Can you imagine how hard it is to get laid when every time you touch someone you see dead people?
In London, a boy named Marcus (twins George and Frankie McLaren) is devastated when his twin brother is struck and killed by a car. When his addict mother is put in rehab, Marcus is sent to a foster home, where he spends his time obsessing about finding ways to communicate with his dead brother. A subsequent post-9/11 terrorist scare feels like a case of excessive piling on. Can't anyone in this movie die in an ordinary way?
Blame scriptwriter Peter Morgan ( The Queen, Frost/Nixon), wandering out of his comfort zone into an area already strip-mined by the Mexican team of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga ( Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel), and supernatural-themed television series like Lost. The viewer waits, at first expectantly and later with increasing irritation, as the disparate story strands are forced together in the "are you kidding?" finale.
That said, Hereafter is unpredictable enough to be consistently watchable. The cinematography is crystal clear, and the methodical pacing compels you to feel the weight of the individual episodes. There's an extended scene devoted to blind tastings in the Italian cooking class. The parade of phony psychics Marcus visits are amusingly theatrical, and at a London Book Fair we are treated, along with George, to hearing Derek Jacobi read Dickens.
Ultimately, we're left with the impression that Eastwood is far less worried about the hereafter than he is interested in the here-and-now.
- Directed by Clint Eastwood
- Written by Peter Morgan
- Starring Matt Damon, Cécile de France and George and Frankie McLaren
- Classification: PG