Hereafter (2010)

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Here, and the beyond

Clint Eastwood moves into new territory in several ways with Hereafter and almost fully carries it off directing a screenplay by Peter Morgan (also in a new area outside British history). It tells three tales about dialoging with the dead that connect at the end. The subject is new; so is shooting in the tropics and London and Paris as well as the US (San Francisco) and in French as well as in English. The risk is sentimentality or hokiness on the one hand and the far-fetchedness of by now clichéd multiple storyline movies on the other. But the stories are interesting, and never slighted in the interests of theme or dovetaling.

In a flashy opening, Cécile de France is a French TV journalist caught with her coworker boyfriend Thierry Neuvic in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. He’s back at the hotel but she’s in the market and gets swept off in the water and almost drowns. In fact she has a near-death experience. The tsunami is neatly and swiftly recreated in special effects that convince without overwhelming. It’s a superb sequence, epic yet disarmingly simple. Meanwhile in San Francisco we meet Matt Damon, a former psychic now working in a factory job because he found revisiting people’s dead relatives too draining and strange a way to live his life. But his powers were effective and he keeps getting pulled back. And in London, two young twin brothers, played by newcomers Frankie and George McClaren, live with an addict mother (Niamh Cusack) whom they try to protect. When one of the twins is killed in a traffic accident the other is taken into foster care. Marcus, formerly the dependent brother, is on his own and wants both his mum and brother Jason back. He wears Jason’s cap and occasionally talks to him.

It’s safe to say the little twin is a strong presence. So is the dynamic, soulful Cécile de France. She has never been in an American film, but only speaks English briefly at a London book fair, where all three principals run into each other. And Damon is good here, striking a strange but convincing balance between flustered and grounded. There is a no-nonsense quality about the way he reluctantly wields his powers.

While de France is going through turmoil at work back in Paris due to her post-traumatic state and sense of having entered another world and not fully returned from it, Damon meets a lovely girl at a cooking class (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose jovial chef (Steven R. Schirripa) has students sample tastes blindfolded, and then loses her through being drawn into communing with her dead relatives. That brings up issues that are too intimate to share. Meanwhile Marcus, turning independent and running off temporarily from his foster parents, visits various psychics, an interlude that shows lots of them are frauds.

The film takes an agnostic stand through Damon, whose character views his special sense as a curse but who may be the real thing — or not. The point of the story is not to focus on the “au-delà” (the beyond, title of a book de France writes when on furlough from journalistic chores) so much as to suggest that reconciling one’s feelings about death and lost loved ones is a key to peace and happiness in the here-and-now. Thus the finale, where characters are reunited in a way that’s hopeful without being overly optimistic.

Morgan’s screenplay obviously plays with the device of Guillermo Arriaga’s Babel and other films where far-off individuals are implausibly and portentously brought together. The bringing-together here is not without clumsiness. But it is handled by Eastwood, as are even the most dramatic elements in the three stories, in such a low keyed way that one stays caught up in the characters and the subject matter and is left at the end with things to ponder rather than a sense of being put through an emotional wringer for dramatic effect. The fresh material and composed, old-fashioned filmmaking make Hereafter one of Eastwood’s better recent efforts. This is not a great film but it’s one that approaches potentially schlocky material in a classy manner, and that’s unusual in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.

The mainstream-ness is still a flaw at times. The way London and Paris are introduced is ham-fisted and conventional. Some details are dubious. Damon has sworn off being a psychic for three years yet still has a website celebrating his powers so Marcus can conveniently find it. De France on furlough proposes to write a biography of Mitterand — unlikely. When this is dropped and the French publisher won’t do her book on “the beyond,” she gets an English publisher — how? Steps are at best skipped there. Glimpses of the afterlife or the dead are signaled by a booming sound and white blurry images — clear, but not very subtle. Dickens’ novels and Derk Jacobi’s readings of them are used as a transparent linking device. Flaws like this in the writing and the directing will make some condemn this as far from Eastwood’s best work. However the good casting and fine acting offset these flaws, and the tsunami sequence is quite memorable, as are most scenes with de France and the English twins. (There’s another action sequence that’s equally well handled.) Hereafter treats its complex theme — that of facing death, our own and others’ — in a tasteful and restrained manner that makes it suggestive and quietly haunting. But for the “MTV generation,” as Eastwood has called it, it’s hard, as it was earlier this year with Polanski’s masterful The Ghost Writer, to appreciate the quiet virtues of traditional filmmaking.

Seen and reviewed at the 2010 New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center; scheduled as the Closing Night film, Oct. 10. Also shown earlier at Toronto, at Chicago Oct. 14; limited US theatrical release Oct. 15, more general, Oct. 22; UK release Jan. 28, 2011.

DIRECTOR: CLINT EASTWOOD
WRITER: PETER MORGAN
CAST: MATT DAMON,CÉCILE DE FRANCE, BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD
RUNTIME:129 MIN
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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