There’s a massive leap of faith one has to take if they want to find Hereafter to be anything more than a slice of ridiculous pablum.
They have to accept that Matt Damon’s George Lonegan can effortlessly commune with the dead. I don’t mean that they have to buy that he is able to reach the spirit world through a complex series of rituals. They have to accept that by simply holding someone’s hand, Damon’s character can actually allow for a lucid discussion between living people their dead loved ones. It’s a stretch I found myself struggling with but ultimately I allowed that contrivance to not factor into my enjoyment of the film. It is a populist movie, but one worth the time. If that leap of faith is possible, Hereafter is a surprisingly rewarding change of pace from director/composer Clint Eastwood. But a percentage of the film’s audience will be lost because we live in a world where paranormal thrillers and life affirming melodramas exist in different spheres and it’s rare that they can meet in the middle and succeed on a narrative level.
Hereafter almost succeeds, living somewhere between Oscar bait and a mainstream thriller/drama. It’s very well made–one of the more kinetic and polished of Eastwood’s recent movies [though nothing can compete with Unforgiven and A Perfect World]. It’s very well acted, with Matt Damon adding to an already impeccable body of work and Cecile De France makes the film her own with a very complex portrayal of a woman who nearly loses her life at the beginning of the film and spends the rest of the running time trying to reclaim it. Twins George and Frankie McLaren also deliver soulful and sad performances as a pair of young brothers who are separated by a car accident. Luckily the surviving boy isn’t saddled with a plethora of “kid dialogue”, rather spending a good portion of his screen time observing and reacting.
The separate stories of these three main characters (Damon, McLaren, De France) are interwoven over two continents in a deliberately paced look at life and death that one could only assume interests someone like Eastwood, a legend whose broad filmography is light on supernatural material, as he looks towards his eighth decade on the planet. Life after death has been covered often with varying degrees of subtlety but it’s interesting to see Eastwood’s take on it, especially considering that Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, and Kathleen Kennedy are producing with him and the skilled Peter Morgan is the writer. It’s a unique blend of talents with extensive pedigree but it’s an odd film that ultimately is going to be considered a misfire because of the emptiness and sadness permeating through it and because the subject matter is so treacherously close to being sap at every turn.
The film begins with the horrible Indian Ocean Tsunami sweeping through a coastal town while French reporter Marie LeLay (De France) in on vacation with her boyfriend. Caught on street level when the massive tidal waves overtake the city, she is swept through the current as she futilely tries to save the life of a young girl before she too is wounded and becomes a victim of the catastrophe. She dies for a few moments before being revived and it is there we first see Hereafter‘s vision of the other side; a washed-out and distorted place where the silhouettes of the fallen walk towards a blinding light while an odd muted hum permeates. It’s very familiar imagery and very much a reflection on what “real life” accounts describe the sensation as. Marie awakens a changed woman, and though she’s able to return to her regular life a part of her is still tied to her experience in the hereafter. She takes a sabbatical to write a François Mitterrand novel but becomes consumed by her new metaphysical quest. Adversely, young Marcus loses his brother and is lost without him. He doesn’t have a vision. Just emptiness. Forced to live with a foster family, he’s lost and searching for something to make him whole again.
And then there’s Matt Damon’s George. Egged on by his brother (Jay Mohr) to make money using his “gift” of speaking with the dead, George has withdrawn and commenced a low profile life as a factory worker. His is a lost life, almost paralleling that of a character from a comic burdened with a power that is more of a curse than anything else. He can’t be close to anyone, and once they know of his ability it changes the whole dynamic of their relationship. He meets Bryce Dallas Howard’s Melanie and in her sees another chance at a better life. But the other side and his connection to it always seems to interfere.
The three leading characters seemed destined to intersect, and though it takes the film too long to execute, the end result is surprisingly effective without feeling too hokey. It’s flawed but it’s not cheese, which is quite an accomplishment. The movie is long and after the big Tsunami sequence it’s quite inert, forcing the audience to be swept up in the little stories of these characters. The work by the actors never keep the film from being interesting but it does have about fifteen minutes of fat. There’s no easy way to wrap a movie like this without dabbling in some sentimentality and the film does a decent job of becoming too soggy. That said, after the big set piece that begins the movie, it’s hard not to feel like the tone of the movie is too uneven to justify such a loud and visual introduction.
Ultimately, Hereafter features excellent acting and characterizations and deftly avoids being the kind of bore movies about this subject tend to be. However, it doesn’t register on a strong enough level to be considered in the upper echelons of the careers of anyone involved. It’s worth the time and is an interesting tangent for Clint Eastwood (whose spare jazz score is quite good) as a filmmaker, where we can see him do a more sober, resonant and dense Shyamalan sort of film.
But it requires the audience to take that leap to truly get anything out of the film, and that’s a pretty steep hurdle.