Truly great cinema is a form of emotional conjuring trick: a way of presenting sounds and images – which, by their nature, we know have been contrived to induce a certain emotional and intellectual reaction – in a way which nonetheless genuinely induces that reaction.
It’s a trick that Clint Eastwood, against the odds, has become rather good at. So much so that, by his reputation alone, part of his work is done before we even take our seats: we like Clint Eastwood: we like his films. We will him to present a film what will enthral us. Our suspension of disbelief is fully willing. We happily disregard occasional dissonances. Clint Eastwood has earned the benefit of our doubt.
And so, Hereafter opens promisingly: A black screen, backed by gentle augmented trills on a Spanish guitar, builds into a wide shot of a languid Pacific paradise. We know from its title this is a film about loss, so we look for a sign of lurking menace. And there it is: the gently breaking surf. Behind it, the sleeping heft of the azure ocean. We track a handsome French couple around their hotel room. There, reflected in every window, lying in wait behind every vista: that casual, loitering threat.
So far, so very, very good.
We are aided by the introduction of Cécile de France, a Class A smouldering French beauty. She magnetises our attention in a way that only Class A smouldering French beauties can. As the monstrous ocean broods, she flounces grumpily out of the love nest, leaving her layabout boyfriend to lie in while she arranges checkout, orders him breakfast, and goes out to buy gifts for his kids. His kids.
Our internal voice says, “a lazy, married, bounder of a paramour? He’ll be a villain then.”
But wait a minute: Isn’t that a bit obvious? Did we just see a magician’s wire?
We park the dissonance: Clint Eastwood has earned that. There follows shortly a set piece involving a natural catastrophe: I won’t spoil what it is, but it drives much of the drama that subsequently unfolds. Now: if you were a director of this sort of film, how would you present such a plot driver: by subtle touch – implying the horror; leaving the carnage to the reader’s imagination? Or would you cart in Industrial Light & Magic and give it the whole Bruckheimer treatment?
Another odd dissonance. Still, we park it. The scene isn’t all ham-fisted, by any stretch: Along the way Eastwood throws in some thoughtful tableaux: It is a film about death, but who is dying? What is the afterlife we glimpse? Is it really anything of the sort? Carefully, Eastwood refrains from answering (though there will be those viewers who will miss the subtle equivocation and assume he does).
The narrative driver triggered, Hereafter settles down to exposition. We are introduced to three unrelated, geographically dislocated stories, so there is a lot of it. It’s a magic trick, remember, so we know there will be some pay-off by which all this narrative will come together, but as the film progresses it is hard to imagine how this could possibly happen. We think: it will take a skilled conjurer indeed to pull this one off.
And, as these strands slowly unfurl themselves, the odd dissonances keep ringing.
We meet twin 12-year-old brothers, each astonishingly self-motivated, diligently doing their homework in their council estate flat and organising their own photographic portraits while their heroin addict mother (it is implied) turns tricks and comes home blitzed out of her brains. When Social Services come knocking, the boys resourcefully hold them off, covering for and reconditioning their mother. They hold together their household. Again, a dissonance: implausibility. We think: really?
As we alternate between the stories, we’re given rather clanging signposts to show us which one we’re in: A wide shot of the Eiffel Tower for France: Tower Bridge for London.
We meet Matt Damon – excellent, as ever, and unquestionably the beating heart of the film. He’s in San Francisco, a retired psychic called George Lonegan. Eastwood equivocates ever-so subtly about Lonegan’s “gift”, and the extent of it (again, credulous viewers will miss this). But, Eastwood defuses this tension: However real Lonegan’s powers may be, he is no charlatan. He’s saddled, not blessed, with the gift. He refuses to profit from it, or even use it. When he is obliged into exercising it (rather easily, it must be said: the lady doth protest too much, methinks), he does it decently. He doesn’t manipulate: he isn’t cruel. Somewhat needlessly, we’re invited to further admire Lonegan for his passion for Charles Dickens. (In a visit to Dickens’ house, Lonegan thrills an entire tour party by correctly identifying a picture of the author asleep while all his characters float around him as “Dickens’ Dream”. I mean, the acumen!)
Still dissonances continue to ring. Eastwood’s emotional manipulation begins to reveal itself. Particularly with the London Twins, who have been written so sympathetically that no acting or film-making talent is required to ensure we are emotionally invested in them: Who wouldn’t be? But then it slowly occurs that very little film-making or acting talent is on display anyway. Again, we wonder, is that a magician’s wire we can see?
Finally, the spell is broken: our French Bombshell, Marie Le Lay (a comedy name almost as good as the actress’ real one) visits a Swiss mountain-top clinic specialising in knowledge about the afterlife (I couldn’t tell whether it was a cancer hospice, a suicide clinic, or both) to be lectured on plot signposting so she could bring the picture home. It is a clumsy scene: clumsily conceived, clumsily scripted and clumsily acted.
It was then it hit me that Clint Eastwood had totally, completely, lost my complicity in his enterprise: his conjuring trick had failed. Hereafter was suddenly preposterous, manipulative and, frankly, daft.
I looked at my watch. We were a good hour and a half into the movie, and there was scant evidence of a means to drive the characters together.
And then suddenly, in a tsunami of implausibility, there they all were: a redundant factory worker from San Francisco, a ten year old boy from South London and a French television Journalist, all wandering around Alexandra Palace in North London. Again, you think: *really*?
As the credits rolled, I was left wondering what Eastwood had said, artistically, while presenting his illusion. I concluded: not really anything. The film is no more or less equivocal about the afterlife than it was at the beginning, and in any case has very little to say about it anyway. If it was a metaphor for something else, it was difficult to comprehend what.
We will see more of Cécile de France in the coming months and years, I dare say, but how well this film does in the hereafter is harder to predict.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Matt Damon, Cécile De France, Bryce Dallas Howard
Runtime: 129 min