Running time: 129 min. Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language
Directed by: Clint Eastwood. Written by: Peter Morgan.
The murky, stilted“Hereafter” may be Clint Eastwood’s first significant misstep in his long directorial career. Although I wasn’t head over heels for Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, they still bear the mark of a gifted filmmaker and a canny director. When we start talking Unforgiven, A Perfect World and Letters from Iwo Jima you are looking at the handiwork of a legitimate artist. With his newest, though, Clint swings for the fences and misses. It is not that Hereafter does not bear the signature of its helmer—it does and then some—but its very nature emphasizes the chinks in his armor and never directly pitches towards his strengths. The result is a turgid, near catatonic exploration of the human fascination with an ‘after life’.
Although some critics have found a reassurance or contemplation of their personal beliefs in Hereafter, and others a refreshing openness in the possibilities, it comes across to me as stuttering indecision when the movie wants to have it’s hallmark moments of catharsis and it’s wary disbelief of any real ‘faith’. The film follows three specific characters through stories of loss, loneliness and resurection; each individual coming against the cold hand of death in different ways and finding something to cling to in the unknown beyond this mortal veil. In a disappointing simplification of the concept, the great beyond is visualized as a flat gray plain with shuffling, indistinct spectres wandering aimlessly. It’s meant to be vague and ephemeral, but it just feels jokey and obscure.
The film opens with Marie, a French TV journalist, caught in the midst of an Indonesian tsunami while on vacation. She’s swept away in the crushing tidal waves, rescued by guys on a fishing trawler, and pulled back from the brink of oblivion just as she’s started to get glimpses of…something else. Her quest for truth takes her away from her TV job and lackadaiscal lover to go rooting about in the storehouses of New Age theory for of proof of an afterlife. The centerpiece of Marie’s story involves a visit to a one-time atheist scientist who now talks about the ‘hereafter’ with complete certainty. Her supposed evidence—that the descriptions of the life-after-death experience are always the same throughout cultures—is frustratingly simplistic and technically incorrect. Then again, maybe her arguments are to be percieved as such. It hobbles the drama either way. I commend Eastwood for choosing Cecile de France for Marie, but her loveliness and grace are all but lost on this understated narrative track.
After Marie, we meet George, a lonely man working a blue collar job to dodge the bullet of his gift; the ability to touch the hands of strangers and then commune with their dead loved ones. Although many have suggested that the film implies George’s gift to be something besides ‘talking to the dead’, Eastwood’s literal visualizations don’t much advance that idea. Either way, George has a knack for unearthing dark and hurtful baggage in those he encounters, and it’s severely stunts his ability to form meaningful relationships. He meets Melanie ( Bryce Dallas Howard) at an evening cooking class and they bond. He’s hoping that their mutual clumsiness in the kitchen will open the door to something more; a safe haven away from the problems of his ability. Alas, Peter Morgan has written Melanie as an epiphany and lesson for George, so any hope of that can go right out the window. In the acting, Damon matches Eastwood’s own stoic reserve and spiritual ambiguity, but Howard goes all bubbly and erratic, and her messy energy mercifully energizes the film for a brief time.
The final plot thread could nearly be a dream had by the wistful George, who falls to sleep listening to audiotapes of Charles Dickens. Following young Marcus, a British twin who lost his brother to tragedy, this story has all of the Dickensian melodrama and ruggedly drawn class caricatures but none of that great author’s verve or conviction. Marcus, and his dead brother Jason, are played by the real-life twins George and Frankie McLaren, and although they are clearly new to acting, they have been saddled with the plucky orphan roles that would be hard to dramatize regardless of experience or talent. Marcus is understandably shell shocked, but he seems almost despondent due to the McLaren’s inability to express his grief.
Eventually, these three threads do come together and intertwine and bring the films meager ideas of spirituality with them. It’s all too pat and structured, and the drama turns on a kind of passive aggressive see-saw. This isn’t Babel or Crash, although it feels as emotionally cold as those films, because Eastwood is a director that refuses to go maudlin or overly melodramatic. This has served him well in the past, but Peter Morgans slight, dream-like script requires a more sure and imaginative hand, and Eastwood’s grows heavy on the delicate metaphors and elusive suppositions. As a result, Hereafter is never very thoughtful or emotional. It’s caught in its own personal limbo, and the old-school efforts of its director lock it down into a long, stately slog that forces the viewer toward their own out of body experience. You may know it as ‘bored to death’.
There are a few flashes of life in Hereafter but strangely they occur in the film’s most technically/artistically dicey propositions. The first is that giant tsunami sequence that opens the movie. Feeling like a mash-up of Emmerich and Spielberg, it goes for a full bodied destruction that I’ve never seen from Eastwood. The combination of unconvincing cgi and compelling camera techniques, capturing the rushing, wild fury of the water, is flawed and fitfully effective but it has a kind of transporting chaos to it. Eastwood’s juices are flowing for this scene, and another one later in the movie that is far more quiet. We are watching George and Melanie at cooking class, and they take turns being blindfolded for a taste-testing, analyzing the flavors, contemplating the nature of the unseen, and in the midst, sharing the hidden in their own lives with one another. It’s terribly obvious and on-the-nose as a conceit, but it is directed with such a passion and quiet assurance that it works at evoking Hereafter’s theme when all of the mumbo jumbo falls flat.
Ultimately, I think Clint was going for a celebration of life and a serious look at grief, loss and hope. Unfortunately, he and Morgan either have little to say on the subject of a spiritual afterlife for the soul or they weren’t ready to share their ideas on it. The resulting film is one that never feels truly alive, instead it becomes a wandering shade ever looking for meaning it never finds.