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Friday, Feb. 18, 2011
Eastwood's latest is a matter of life and death
Life is short, death eternal, and Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" lies somewhere in between. The film starts off with a bang — a tsunami hitting a Thai resort town, a psychic contacting the dead in San Francisco, and a street mugging turning into accidental death on a tough London street. It then moves slowly but surely into a state of solemn gravitas so deep that you'll be inclined to check your pulse.
"Hereafter" focuses on three characters, and what happens when death impinges a little too closely on their lives. George (Matt Damon) is a dock worker in San Francisco who has a strange, paranormal ability to hear messages from the dead; he used to work as a professional psychic, but spending too much time in the spirit realm was wearing him down. While his brother Billy (Jay Mohr) insists he has "a gift" — and that they should make a buck on it — George sees it as more of a curse.
Marcus (George McLaren) is a young boy living on a London council estate, whose mother (Lyndsey Marshal) is a hopeless junkie. He relies on his twin brother, Jason (Frankie McLaren), for support, and when Jason is suddenly killed, Marcus is set hopelessly adrift. Desperate to maintain a link, he wears his brother's cap day and night, and starts researching psychics and seers who can help him contact Jason on the other side.
Marie (Cecile de France) is a successful Parisian telecaster who has a near-death experience when she's submerged under the tsunami's floodwaters on her vacation. The near miss shakes her, but even more, the visions she sees while her heart has stopped — of white light and shadowy figures — haunt her so that she is unable to work. She seeks answers and starts researching for a book on the afterlife, much to the consternation and embarrassment of her "rational" colleagues and lover (Thierry Neuvic).
Anyone who's seen films such as "Babel," "Crash" or "The Burning Plain" knows that it's just a matter of time before these disparate strands are woven together, and screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon") gives us a script which does exactly that, but without the sort of dramatic payoff one usually expects from this kind of film. While the plot may suggest a spooky supernatural flick with an M. Night Shyamalan sort of carpet-pulling twist at the end, "Hereafter" is an altogether more reticent film, for better and for worse.
De France is an engaging presence, her character both befuddled by her experience yet defiant of her right to investigate it as seriously as any other issue. (Her French publisher wants her to write about politics; supernatural books about heaven are strictly for the Americans, he sneers.)
Damon is all right, but his performance here as the lonely, emotionally repressed George may be the most minimalist and guarded of his career. Things improve when Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) shows up in his evening cooking class and makes a move on him; her presence lights up the film all too briefly, though.
Finally, George McLaren, as sad little Marcus, does introverted and withdrawn quite well, but little else. This is not a film of big emotions, but even the small ones are underplayed, generally with Eastwood's own soft, jazz-inflected score providing an emotional nudge.
"Hereafter," like so much late-period Eastwood, is elegiac in the extreme, focusing on how loss casts its heavy shadow on life. Just think of "Changeling," with Angelina Jolie playing that mother obsessed with finding her missing child; "Million Dollar Baby," where Eastwood himself has to pull the plug on a brain-dead Hilary Swank; and "Mystic River," where Sean Penn goes a bit mad while seeking to avenge his daughter's death.
In all these films, Eastwood — who at age 80 no doubt knows plenty about loss — treats death with the gravity it demands, which is a far cry from the cheap, ironic killings in so much of Hollywood cinema.
Eastwood avoids the florid digital fantasy worlds of Peter Jackson's afterlife in "The Lovely Bones," but on the other hand, he never equals that film's moments of beauty, terror and grief. The seances where George contacts the dead are largely quiet, matter-of-fact affairs; there are no demons from below as in Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell." But when your film kicks off with a tsunami, you'd better have an ace up your sleeve for the finish.
"Hereafter," though, manages only an author signing at a book fair. Not that big is necessarily better, but "Hereafter" promises us the mysteries of the next world, and winds up delivering merely a small good deed and a kiss. Woody Allen would no doubt say it's best to enjoy whatever simple pleasures life may offer when faced by the void, but he certainly would say it with a few laughs.