Hereafter (United States, 2010)October 21, 2010
It's safe to say that, as a director, Clint Eastwood shows no fear. Only a few years beyond telling the story of Iwo Jima from the Japanese point-of-view, Eastwood ventures down another little traveled cinematic avenue by making what is essentially a "French movie" (at least in terms of narrative approach and pacing) using American money and featuring a mostly English-speaking cast. And, although the movie is imperfect and unlikely to achieve anything close to mainstream acceptance, its refusal to court box office success exhibits a nobility of purpose. Additionally, it arrives without a hint of the sanctimoniousness that accompanied the release of Eastwood's preachy parable of racial unity, Invictus.
With Hereafter, Eastwood, like a master at a loom, spins three stories of lives impacted by Death, weaving the strands ever closer until they touch. Seams occasionally show in the way the narrative embraces coincidence. It seems contrived - it is contrived - but it's done with enough elegance and careful planning not to be too off-putting. If there's a flaw in the way Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan structure the film, it's that two of the three stories are markedly less interesting than the third, which is revealed to be the "primary" one (or at least the one that captures the most screen time). Since many viewers will be more intrigued by one of the leading characters than the others, this creates an inherent imbalance. We're interested in what happens to Matt Damon's George and every time Hereafter pauses his story to return to one of the other two, we become a little annoyed.
George Lonegan (Damon) is a San Francisco-based factory worker who gave up a lucrative career as a psychic because he couldn't stand living a life that was all about contacting the dead. His brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), who wants to see the gravy train rolling again, considers George's ability to be a "gift." But the man who believes himself capable of conversing with the departed views it as a "curse" - one that has robbed him of the ability to experience a normal existence. This is evident when a budding relationship with his cooking class partner, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), goes awry once she learns of his ability and pleads for a reading.
Marie Lelay (Cécile De France) is a survivor of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami but she experiences death before crossing back over to life. The images she sees while hovering between the two states becomes the driving force in her existence. Given a sabbatical from her work as a television journalist, she begins to investigate the experiences of others who have touched the hereafter and becomes a devout believer that the "here and now" is not all there is. When she expresses her desire to write a book about this, she finds doors unexpectedly closed. One would-be publisher admits that anything she writes would be expressly for a "niche market."
In the U.K., twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are struggling to hold their family together. Social Services wants to remove them from the custody of their drug addicted mother. Tragedy strikes unexpectedly. While picking up a drug prescription for his mother, Jason is run down in the street. His death leaves Marcus as little more than a walking ghost in need of closure. Hoping to make contact with Jason beyond the grave, he begins seeking out psychics, but it doesn't take long for him to determine they're all frauds.
Although Hereafter is a spiritual movie, it is not a religious one. In fact, religion is barely mentioned, with an infrequent instance being a token appearance by a priest presiding over Jason's funeral (played by Colin Firth in a cameo). Like Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1998 After Life, questions about God are left out of the mix. The underlying premise is simply that life may continue beyond death. Hereafter does not function as publicity for any particular religious sect or denomination's beliefs.
The film frequently ventures into existential territory, which should not be surprising for something that deals with material of this nature. It asks questions that most of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, have pondered. A phrase from Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy - "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns" - suffuses nearly every frame. It's fascinating to observe how each of the three primary characters copes with an intimacy with death. George is tormented by it. His relationship with Melanie, which begins with great promise, detours down a trajectory George is all-too-familiar with, and we feel for him when he recognizes the cul-de-sac in which he has become trapped. Marie becomes obsessed by her near-death vision and frustrated when no one takes this life-transforming event seriously. Marcus, whose entire life has been turned upside down, cannot anchor himself.
Hereafter is not the best focused of motion pictures, but it features wonderful, nuanced performances by the leads (one would be hard-pressed to associate this Matt Damon with the one who played the angry action-hero Jason Bourne) and touches on some fascinating issues. Its failure to plumb the depths of any of them is a fault, as is the scattershot structure (evident especially in the film's first half), but the movie is rarely not engaging. The special effects work, although limited, is exemplary. The tsunami sequence is noteworthy, adding a "you-are-there" element to recreations of familiar home video footage. As far as the little details are concerned, it's nice to find an American-made movie where characters living in France are allowed to speak French. (Although this accounts for perhaps less than 20% of all dialogue.)
In a way, it's amazing to consider that Eastwood, the "man's man" best known as The Man with No Name or Dirty Harry, is responsible for such a tender motion picture. However, as his cinematic choices over the years have testified, he has grown both in the kinds of material he is willing to bring to the screen and the skill with which he presents it. Hereafter is a fascinating, absorbing motion picture, but will work only for those willing to surrender to the story as it unspools at its own deliberate rate.
Hereafter (United States, 2010)
Subtitles: In English and French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Peter Morgan
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Music: Clint Eastwood