I entered the room in trepidation. The hatred and snark the reviews unleashed upon Hereafter seemed appropriate for a Michael Bay release but not for a new movie by Clint Eastwood, one of the best American filmmakers working. Could Eastwood have finally made a train-wreck? The movie started. I wasn’t worried about the beginning – the much-talked about Tsunami sequence that robbed TRON: Legacy of its Best Visual Effects Oscar nomination. The Tsunami trundled across the screen and left me in awe. But I steeled myself: Matt Damon’s storyline was starting. A few minutes later I knew I was in the excellent hands of Clint Eastwood. And I didn’t have to wait until the end to know I was watching one of the best movies of 2010. Some things one just intuitively knows.
While on vacation French journalist Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) survives a devastating Tsunami wave, fails to save a girl and has a near-death experience that leaves her detached from her boyfriend (Thierry Neuvic), work and colleagues and inspires her to write a book on the studies of the afterlife.
In San Francisco George Lonegan (Matt Damon) has renounced the fame and fortune his powers to contact the dead could bring him (a popular psychic once, with a website and a book on him), preferring a low-profile life working at a factory. As a favour to his brother (Jay Mohr), though, he transmits to his business partner Christos (Richard Kind) a message from his dead wife.
In London 12-year-old Marcus loses his twin brother, Jason (George and Frankie McLaren), in a car accident. Social services put him in a foster house while his alcoholic and drug-addicted mom (Lyndsey Marshal) undergoes detox. But Marcus, who always looked up to his brother, can’t cope with his loss and looks for means to contact him again.
Three characters touched by death in a different way. Three storylines that could each be a movie. Three storylines whose forced convergence is the only fault I can find in this movie. Otherwise this is a solid effort by Eastwood and his regular crew, a movie with invisible directing, well written (Peter Morgan for once doesn’t pilfer the History Channel for ideas) and well acted.
Hereafter is first and foremost a triumph of character creation. All the characters, each burned with a crisis, have substance and give the impression that, outside the screen, their lives continue to develop as if they were real.
George, as his surname implies, is a lonely man. His brother seems more interested in exploiting his powers than helping him. His powers can’t let him build a relationship with people. He goes to Italian cooking classes. There he meets a flirtatious woman who helps demonstrate why. Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), new in San Francisco and his cooking partner, asks him give her a reading. He ends up unlocking secrets about things her father did to her that she perhaps didn’t remember. As George says, knowing everything about a person in a relationship isn’t always good. She doesn’t return to the cooking classes.
A lot of information is told visually. Some scene compositions say everything about characters. Let’s look at Jason’s funeral. Marcus sits on the front bench. His mother, surrounded by two junkies, sits a few benches behind, as distant as the first time she walks onto the screen, drunk. At the church’s end sit the social services people, always looking over Marcus, thinking they can help him. But Marcus is all alone. He doesn’t need their help. He needs his brother.
Or let us consider the first time the social services knock on their door. The efficiency with which the two cover for their drunk mom shows how deception has become a routine for them. We can infer how their lives have been for a long time just from this scene. A lot of characterisation in this movie works without stating anything about the characters.
Only the Tsunami sequence displays extravagance, and even then it’s in the service of the story. This is what those who accuse the movie of robbing TRON: Legacy must understand. A movie that uses special effects to aid a story is better than a movie whose special effects replace the story. You don’t praise the desert for containing a lot of sand.
The rest of the movie is serene and introspective. The supernatural events are few and restrained: George contacts spirits and Marcus is saved from a terrorist explosion in the underground after his brother’s cap, which he uses since his death, is knocked off his head. When George gives him a reading we learn it was Jason who intervened.
The movie isn’t as concerned with the afterlife so much as with the way people react to and are affected by its possibility. Marie’s newfound interest in it creates an embarrassing barrier between her and her colleagues, who seem to find the topic bizarre. As a character says, the afterlife makes people irrational and hostile.
Marcus, in his pursuit to communicate with his brother, meets the ugly side of this matter: the quacks and charlatans who’ve turned the afterlife into a business, an industry – the opposite of George, who uses his powers with ethical discernment.
Once again Eastwood composes the music. As an avid film music collector, I don’t listen to them regularly but I find that his music always works well in underscoring the movie’s drama. In Hereafter, however, he knows when to let the acting do the work. Therefore all of George’s readings, the most heartrending scenes in the movie, go without music, relying on Damon’s skills to accentuate their emotional power
Sadly the three storylines, after a rush of coincidences, feel forced when they converge in London. It is perhaps inevitable that a movie whose nature consists of multiple storylines make abundant use of coincidences, and I may have as much right to complain about them as of gangsters in a gangster movie, but the rushed feeling is present.
Hereafter asks the viewer to be in the company of death for two hours. I hope this will not dissuade the viewer from watching it. The movie explores this topic with unusual compassion and gravitas. Death isn’t a light matter but Eastwood’s movie, while giving it a human face, doesn’t trivialise it. Instead it shows what death can teach us about living for the present. What is in the afterlife? Apart from translucent lightshows, Eastwood doesn’t care to show. He doesn’t side with any known view of what the afterlife is. Perhaps because of this he has drawn as much contempt from the secular reviewers who accuse him of being pro-Christian as from the Christian reviewers who accuse him of depicting a godless beyond. This is not a movie to reinforce beliefs. It’s a movie that asks questions. For that Hereafter deserves not condemnation but praise.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Peter Morgan
Cast: Matt Damon, Cécile De France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Richard King, Jay Mohr, Bryce Dallas Howard, Thierry Neuvic
Runtime 129 min