Clint Eastwood is a formidable director. When he is on he can make powerful, gripping films like Million Dollar Baby or Unforgiven. When he is off, he makes films that are enjoyable but don’t coalesce in a meaningful way, like Invictus. After watching Hereafter, it is clear that Eastwood is off his game.
Hereafter is being sold as a drama centered around Matt Damon, which isn’t the case. In actuality, the story centers around three protagonists: Marie Lelay (Cécile De France) a wealthy, young, famous French journalist; Marcus (George and Frankie McLaren) a low class kid from London, and George Lonegan (Damon) a blue collar factory worker in San Francisco that gave up a successful life as a psychic. Each one of the characters has been affected by death. Marie nearly drowned during a tsunami that devastated the town she was vacationing in. Marcus lost his twin brother Jason in a car accident. And George can connect with and speak with the dead. Each character searches for a way to deal with death, whether they want to know where we go when we die or speak with someone who has died or try to ignore it altogether. This thread of obsession with death is what unites all the characters’ storylines. That is, until they are all brought together at the same location through a series of contrived events. Although, admittedly, not as contrived as they could have been.
The film sets up a lot of interesting paths and avenues of exploration to explore the topic of death and an afterlife, but ultimately, does pay off any of them. Also, the film moves at a rather slow pace and spends such a long time setting up ideas that the lack of completion on these ideas is all the more disappointing.
For instance, the idea religion plays on an afterlife. Religion is totally dismissed in this movie. In fact, the words heaven and hell are never even uttered. In the few moments that we do see religious figures, they are painted in unfavorable lights. The priest at Marcus’s brother Jason’s funeral gives a rushed service and is brusque and uncaring towards Marcus. He just cares about incinerating the body so he can move the next one through. When Marcus begins to search online for answers, he runs across a series of YouTube videos from different religious leaders preaching their message. Not only do their statements come off as vapid, but flat out stupid. Religion being wrong is an interesting idea. But this is the limit of that exploration. Perhaps this is a good thing. It saves Eastwood having to debate the divinity of the afterlife and running afoul by choosing one religion over the other. Instead the film treats the idea in a more scientific manner.
When Marie begins to search for answers, wanting to know what exactly it was that she saw when she almost drowned, she ends up meeting with Dr. Rousseau, a researcher in the field. Rousseau has been gathering accounts of near-death experiences and has noticed an emerging pattern. Everyone seems to experience the same thing: the bright light and hazy silhouettes and feeling of weightlessness that Marie also experienced. Rousseau draws the conclusion that since there are so many unified accounts, that there must be an afterlife and it is what these people describe. She gives all her research to Marie, hoping that Marie’s fame can spread the truth she has been unable to. This too, is an interesting idea. Unfortunately, that is the extent of its exploration: this one scene.
Ultimately, the story seems to be more about the hold that death has on us. Not that it eventually finds each of us, but the obsession that it can create in us. Both Marie and Marcus begin to lose everything in their lives as they become more and more obsessed with death. George keeps trying to avoid it, but his ability to communicate with the dead draws out that obsession in those around him, and ruins the peace he keeps trying to build for himself. It’s not until these three characters are brought together that they are allowed to let go and begin to live life by meeting each other’s needs. While contrived, this does lead to the best scene in the film, in which George does a reading for Marcus.
I am usually a fan of Eastwood’s scores, particularly in Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River. But in this film if felt as if there were two scores overlaid on top of each other, one of which was part of the moment, and one of which was distracting from the moment. This time, the twangy guitar that I so love from Million Dollar Baby’s score feels out of place and inappropriate.
But there are excellent things in the movie. Damon’s performance is wonderful. You can feel the burden of his gift crushing him as he retreats inside himself, jamming his hands in his pockets to keep from making contact with anyone. And the film looks beautiful. It has Eastwood’s signature colour palette of grays and blues and everything looks a little desaturated. Yet, somehow there is beauty in this drabness. As far as I’m concerned, Eastwood should never work with anyone but Tom Stern as his director of photography.
But the best thing is the death. There is no romanticizing death in this movie. It is violent and brutal and nothing you ever want to be part of. No one in this film goes quietly in to that good night. One of the things Eastwood knows how to do is add a kineticism to his film. He knows how to make you feel the impact of car hitting body. And it not pleasant.
Ultimately, Hereafter isn’t a bad movie. It just isn’t a very interesting one. It sets up interesting ideas but doesn’t explore them enough. The problem isn’t that the film doesn’t offer up enough answers, but that it doesn’t ask enough questions. When the film ends, it sort of pointless and easily forgotten. It vanishes into the ether like an apparition.