[22 October 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The eternal question of what happens after we die deserves better than Hereafter, the new film by aging Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood. Then again, no movie can do the subject true justice. Wrapped as it is around religion (Tinseltown kryptonite), grief, and the unflappable need for human beings to believe in something ‘beyond ‘reality, it’s almost impossible to find the right combination of the ethereal and the everyday. To make this work, you have to maintain both the believability in the next realm (which Eastwood doesn’t) as well as the need for a truth outside of now. All we get here are a triptych of tales which argue for a stronger editorial hand and the inherent flaw in such a format - all parts of your omnibus better work, or the failures threaten to pull down the successes.
Contemplating one’s morality shouldn’t be so dreary, and yet Eastwood is seemingly undone by a need to constantly pull back and hedge his aesthetic bets. The film starts off with one of the strongest sequences in the 80-year-old’s oeuvre - a tsunami that almost kills Marie LeLay (Cécile de France), a famed French reporter. The scene, shot without a lot of the typical action movie bravado, catches us off guard, giving the forthcoming narrative a kind of cosmic heft which it never quite recaptures. Before long, we are then thrust into the main plot element - the lonely life of “actual” psychic George Lonegan (a good Matt Damon). Gifted since an incident as a child, he has given up on his self-described ‘curse’ in part because of the pain it causes him. He also wants to avoid the huckster moneymaking mannerisms of his callous brother Billy (Jay Mohr).
But it’s the third thread that undermines Eastwood and screenwriter Peter Morgan’s designs. Centering on a young British boy named Marcus (Frankie McLaren) who loses his twin brother in a car accident, this meandering, pat melodrama - including a heroin addicted mother who the lads lovingly cover-up for - is a misstep from the very start. The moment our tiny hero goes out, seeking someone to help him communicate with his dead sibling, we anticipate the clichéd approach to the dynamic…and it arrives in big, brash, burlesque like fashion. We get the “spirit vessel” who speaks in the silly voice of an ancient otherworldly ‘guide’, the science minded shill, etc. Both intentionally and inadvertently funny, the sharp shift in tone destroys any attempt at treating Marcus’ story seriously. Instead, we keep waiting for the boy to discover George, and then figure out how Marie will fit in.
Another problem arrives in the personage of Melanie, new to San Francisco and eager to meet a man. During a tired bit of meet-cute couple’s cooking, she connects with George and an unlikely relationship begins to blossom. Played by Bryce Dallas Howard as a combination of irritating ditz and plastic faced mannequin (seriously, who approved her fright mask make-up job?), we are instantly turned off by this near desperate woman, her “looking for love” designs worn openly and irritating on her secretly suffering sleeves. Of course, she discovers George’s issues, asks for a reading, and then recoils when he uncovers the truth. Before we know it, the red haired harpy is gone, and with her, much of said storyline’s significance.
Indeed, the biggest issues with Hereafter is a failure to fully explore ideas. Granted, it’s almost impossible to come back from the gangbusters opening of a massive, destructive flood, but Morgan could have found a way to make Marie’s situation less off a sticking point. The real drama exists with George - his past, his present, his desire to keep the future (and the foreseeable) at arm’s length. Like the brilliant adaptation of The Dead Zone by David Cronenberg, wrestling with such spiritual connections can make for compelling, thrilling cinema. Instead, Eastwood wants to skip all the fun and get right down to the fuddy-duddy. Like a terminal patient who knows they are going to die, Hereafter gets all the handwringing and crying out of the way before the first scene even unfolds. From then on, it’s like one big two hour tour of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s last stage of grief (i.e. - “acceptance”, for those unaware).
It’s almost impossible for Eastwood to make an unentertaining film, though Hereafter does strain said perception. We do get caught up in little moments within the story, hints harbored by characters more or less left to fend for themselves. Marie’s job is never really explained, so its interchangeability and importance is mitigated. Similarly, Marcus’ often touching take on losing a twin is hampered by the whole drug addict/child services hysterics. Again, Morgan just couldn’t leave well enough alone, and instead had to overdress every aspect of his tale. Simply staying with George, illustrating how he struggled with the post-layoff possibility of returning to his life as a professional psychic, would have been the greatest of narrative plenty. Instead, we get a literal plot pile-on.
Of course, where Hereafter comes up the emptiest is in the meaning department. Ambiguity is nothing new in discussing life after death, but this movie makes no attempt to broach the philosophical or the profound. There are no discussions about the reason we search for something beyond this life, or why George is so undone by his journeys into a place of such proposed peace and happiness. Indeed, during his eventually connection with his dead twin, Marcus discovers that the “next phase” of existence is pretty bitchin’. No judgment. No Hellfire or Bible-thumping brimstone. No Pearly Gates or other religious based piffle. Just tranquility, weightlessness, and warm, restful serenity. Kind of makes you want to pull out a gun or a bottle of pills and get this problem-plagued first part of the process out of the way ASAP, right?
Sure, that sounds cynical, and it may come from a place of pragmatism and a lack of looking for (or at) the big picture, but Hereafter is not going to change your views. It’s not a difference maker, just a well meaning but weak look at the possibilities in passing on. Call it a masterpiece or some kind of psycho-Babel, but it’s definitely not one of Eastwood’s best. As he ages, the man who once made cornball catchphrases and an everpresent squint seem uber-cool is turning into an amazing auteur. Sadly, instead of staying with his strengths, he decided to tackle a terribly trick subject. That he managed to make something remotely intriguing is perhaps the biggest “revelation” here. It’s the only one, however.