In 2010, Clint Eastwood reached the ripe old age of 80, yet the prolific filmmaker still unabatedly continues to make motion pictures on a regular basis; accumulating a cinematic oeuvre that is as diverse as it is excellent. Written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), 2010’s Hereafter is a supernatural drama which re-teams Eastwood with Invictus star Matt Damon. In typical Eastwood style, the director has fashioned a classy, low-key rumination on mysteries surrounding the afterlife. Eschewing a grand-scale approach, Eastwood adhered to his habitual filmmaking methods: Unfinicky camera tricks, gentle scoring, and introspective performances. Viewers accustomed to The Ghost Whisperer or Stephen King novels may be annoyed by the absence of zeal, but those with an open mind or those keyed into Eastwood’s previous efforts may be willing to sit back and watch as the filmmaker realizes his own vision. While the results are admittedly mixed, there’s enough bravura workmanship on offer within Hereafter to make it worth at least a hesitant recommendation.
Babel-esque in plot structure, Hereafter tells the story of three strangers, each of whom live in a different country but are connected by their desire to find solace while confronting questions about mortality. In San Francisco, retired psychic George Lonegan (Damon) is forever weary of the attention that his gift brings him. His opportunistic brother (Mohr) pushes for George to profit off his exceptional abilities, but George craves a peaceful life and gets a factory job. However, he cannot seem to escape his reputation. Meanwhile, French journalist Marie Lelay (De France) endures a near-death experience in Thailand where she was swept away during the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami. Back home in France, Marie cannot put her life back together and is haunted by visions which compel her to begin writing a book. And finally, in London, young Marcus (Frankie McLaren) is devastated when his twin brother Jason (George McLaren) is hit by a car and killed. Placed in a foster home while his grieving, drug-addled mother (Marshal) seeks help, Marcus is faced with questions about the afterlife that cannot be answered via religion or fraudulent psychics.
Hereafter is moving and usually enthralling yet restrained, much like what we have come to expect from a Clint Eastwood feature. The picture touches upon grief, hope and spirituality, but thankfully does not get overly preachy or mawkish about it. In lesser hands, the film could have easily become cheesy and cheaply manipulative, but Eastwood’s minimalist approach keeps things in check. This feat is all the more commendable given that Damon’s character feels as if he walked straight out of a Stephen King story. However, there is a large flaw with the structure of the film: Two of the three stories are less interesting than the third. In this case, George’s story is more interesting than the events which befall Marie and Marcus, creating an imbalance. It’s therefore somewhat annoying every time George’s story is paused in order for the focus to shift to somebody else.
Unfortunately, the repetitious way with which the narrative is told grows problematic. None of the stories achieve the vitality or development that they required in order to reach full dramatic liftoff. Instead, it feels as if there is too much repetitious, superfluous narrative flab. Several unimportant scenes could have easily been excised in favor of stronger scenes which could have given each story the aforementioned vitality and development they sorely needed. Also, the characters are not entirely three-dimensional, and their respective journeys barely scratch the surface of the themes that Morgan and Eastwood evidently wanted to meditate over. Hereafter depicts characters as they grapple with profound, life-changing events, but the film itself fails to be as profound as it had the potential to be — rather, it merely remains an elementary study of three individuals confronting universal issues and mysteries. Perhaps this is due to Eastwood’s choice to shoot what was essentially Peter Morgan’s first script draft.
Despite Morgan’s pages needing a thorough polish, Eastwood handled the material with his typical assuredness. Hereafter begins with a frightening bang; a recreation of the tsunami which ravaged the Indonesian coast on Boxing Day in 2004. Top-notch visual effects work (which earned the film its sole Oscar nomination) and a refusal to treat it like a Roland Emmerich disaster spectacle make this a startling, harrowing set-piece which hammers home the point of how unpredictable the world can be. Apart from this opening sequence, Hereafter possesses an appealingly understated style. Although hired relatively late in the film’s development stage (unlike most of his pictures), Eastwood’s stylistic stamp is all over the film. Besides directing, Eastwood also contributed to the film’s gentle score, which is effective as well. Eastwood’s work was also assisted by Tom Stern’s magnificent, moody cinematography.
As George Lonegan, Damon’s performance is nicely restrained and imbued with humanity. It is not exactly an Oscar-worthy performance like his turn in Invictus, but Damon’s efforts are nonetheless effective. Meanwhile, as Marie, Cécile De France is excellent (and is anyone else relieved to see a Westernized film with French characters who actually speak French in their homeland?). The actresses’ greatest talent is making all of her actions and lines believable. At the other end of the spectrum, however, Frankie and George McLaren have great, expressive faces but are dreadful child actors. Perhaps the boys will improve with experience, but their acting is uneven — for each genuine moment there are two or three moments which come off as stilted or contrived. Rounding out the cast is Bryce Dallas Howard as George’s cooking partner Melanie. Howard is in and out of the film too fast, but her scenes with Damon constitute the movie’s strongest and most absorbing moments. Not to mention, her almost entirely unspoken past and the brutally abrupt outcome of her relationship with George allows the character to linger in a viewer’s mind for the duration of the picture.
In a way it is rather extraordinary to consider that a “man’s man” like Eastwood could craft such a tender motion picture. After all, he is best known for such brutal characters as Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name. Yet, as Eastwood’s films over the years have proved, the director is able to handle any type of unpredictable material with a consummate skill that most Hollywood directors lack. It’s just unfortunate that Peter Morgan’s script was not given a few more revisions — there is a lot of untapped potential here, and it’s disappointing if one considers what Hereafter could have been if Eastwood was handling a fifteenth or sixteenth script draft.