You don’t have to go far on the internet to know where I stand on Clint Eastwood. I’m as big a fan of him as a filmmaker as I am of him as an actor. I’m interested in his take on America, his take on humanity, and in his restless creative spirit. Clint never makes the same movie twice, not even when he was making Dirty Harry flicks. He’s tackled the subject of death in various ways, usually from the varied perspective of those men who cause it. But I don’t think I could have ever expected that he’d get around to making a movie about death from the perspective of those who have died. In Hereafter, Clint takes on supernatural themes, which he hasn’t done (depending on how you look at it) since High Plains Drifter. The results are very, very interesting.
Honestly, I’d prefer to sit with this movie for a while, to let it sink in. It’s already been a couple weeks and I still feel like committing my thoughts to black-and-white would be rushing it. When one of my creative heroes explores a departure in genre and subject matter, I prefer to temper my opinion and to consider it carefully. Just look at the reception to Hereafter thus far: The film’s release schedule was somewhat garbled, considering Clint’s longtime success record with both earning and award-getting. And the overall critical response has been diametrically opposed – many prominent critics have called it “great” or “masterpiece” and almost as many others have called it “bad” or “boring.” They can’t both be right, and it’s even possible that neither of them are.
For my own part, I was consistently intrigued by Hereafter, even if I wasn’t quite as emotionally engaged as I have been by so many other Eastwood projects. It’s certainly not a movie for the impatient. Clint crafts Hereafter with a deliberate pace; as always, he works at his own damn speed. Clint’s never gone in on modern trends just to placate an audience; so many modern movies use handheld cameras and rapid-fire editing without even making the artistic decision – they just do it because that’s how most movies do it now. Even Clint’s action movies have a patient, classical pacing to them – he’d rather show events at the rate that they need to unfold, rather than try to amp up an audience’s excitement with cinematic caffeination techniques. This is one reason why people aren’t responding to Hereafter immediately – I heard some restless rustling at my screening. There’s also a sort of squareness to Hereafter that I found to be refreshing and comforting, but obviously isn’t in step with a culture of escalating coolness. Matt Damon’s character has an old-school stateliness and quiet dignity to him; it’s the kind of role Clint could have played several years ago. Even when he’s being a bit of a jerk, it comes off as the irritation of a much older man: “Look, lady…” and “Look, kid…” and those kind of things.
The story is a Babel kind of three-protagonist odyssey. It’s about three characters and their spiritual experiences. The first is a French journalist (Cécile de France) who nearly dies in a harrowing and spectacularly-coordinated tsunami sequence that opens the movie. Right before she’s resuscitated, she has visions of what she knows to be an afterlife, which prove a major hurdle to re-entering her previous profession and relationships. The second is Matt Damon’s story, as a melancholy former psychic who is constantly reminded of his ability to communicate with the recently-passed. He keeps trying to escape it, but curious people keep pulling him back towards it. (Turns out that having supernatural powers can really hamper your dating life.) Finally, there’s a wee British urchin whose twin brother is killed in a car accident. The boy is now searching for some spiritual truth that will make sense of all the senselessness.
Here’s an embarrassing admission: My innate cluelessness made Hereafter more confusing that it was meant to be. I didn’t read up on the movie beforehand, but I saw all the posters with Matt Damon front and center (and Cécile de France right behind him). So once I finally saw the movie, the story structure kept cutting to the little British kid’s scenes right after scenes of Matt Damon laying down to sleep – naturally, my dumb mind made the leap that those were supposed to be flashbacks, so I spent the first half of the movie waiting for the little kid to somehow lose the accent and move to the States and gain Jay Mohr as his brother.
Maybe that’s a telling mistake, though: Not just because he’s the most familiar actor was the Matt Damon story the most compelling of the three. His character’s story is the one least like any we’ve seen many times before. I liked the sweetness and the old-fashioned way that the love story with Bryce Dallas Howard’s character developed, and the natural, painful way that it fell apart due to reluctant secrets revealed. I could relate. In the same way, I didn’t have a problem with the abrupt beginning to the love story in the final act, when all three stories collide, because quite frankly, I believe that things happen that way. That’s the kind of spirituality I can ride with.
Overall, my first impression of Hereafter is that it may not be the classic that its early champions are suggesting, but it might end up proving to be more interesting than that. It’s the work of a great director and great artist spreading his wings and attempting something new, and by the way, Clint’s simple and lovely orchestral score is maybe his best accomplishment yet in that arena. But those people who would call Hereafter a “bad” movie? Sorry, it isn’t that. It obviously isn’t for them, and they may have some objectively legitimate objections to the story or its execution, but you can’t slop the “bad” brush over an entire Eastwood picture. Clint just plain doesn’t do “bad.” He does interesting experiments, and he does greatness. Hereafter lies somewhere in the middle.