[18 March 2011]
Associate Features Editor
With directors of a certain age and stature, leniency can be given for a few missteps if they’re hard, consistent workers. Woody Allen is a prime example. The man simply can’t stop writing. He’s made at least one movie a year since 1977. It’s a part of him. It’s in his DNA. That doesn’t mean all his movies are good – in fact, quite the opposite. With a few exceptions, many critics have decried most of Allen’s films since the mid-‘90s.
Yet he perseveres as an entertainer. Clint Eastwood, the iconic actor turned award-winning director, is certainly made of the same hard-working ilk. Nearly matching Allen’s workaholic pace, Eastwood has directed 31 features since his start in 1971. His critical reception has taken the opposite trajectory, however, with most of his “best” films released in the last decade. Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters From Iwo Jima all earned Eastwood Oscar nods, and he seemed primed to end his career on a high note. His last four films, though, including the clunky, meandering Hereafter, have been misfires.
Eastwood has always had a fascination with death and its consequences, but he tackles the issue head on in screenwriter Peter Morgan’s triptych. The first story follows Marie Lelay (Cecile De France), a French television journalist who sees what may be the afterlife when she’s swept away by a tsunami while on vacation. We then meet Matt Damon’s George Lonegan, a retired psychic who keeps being pushed back into his former line of work by his greedy brother. Finally, there’s Marcus and Jason, two British boys with an alcoholic mother. When one is killed in a car accident, the other goes on a religious journey searching for meaning in his brother’s death, and perhaps one last chance to speak to him.
Yes, this is pretty heavy stuff, and it’s handled that way. Eastwood sets a gloomy, dark tone early on and just keeps pushing it forward. Many scenes take place at night. Gray skies permeate the days. Bluish tones dominate the sets. Everyone speaks in a whisper or slightly muted tone. Obviously, a somber attitude had to be taken to match the weighty aspect of the film’s nature and Eastwood, an expert on sobriety after so many of his recent pictures, portrays it ideally.
Tone isn’t the problem, though. Neither is the acting, though Damon’s wardrobe is a bit off kilter and distracting. His deep V-neck sweaters and thick, earth-tone cardigans call to mind Maine fisherman, not San Franciscan psychics. Maybe they’re meant to make him seem out of place, but they’re not different enough to merit that kind of attention. The issue lies within the three stories, only one of which is worth telling. Though the tsunami provides some spectacle (very disturbing spectacle, given the recent events in Japan) to an otherwise dull picture, Marie’s spiritual crisis and subsequent search for answers is all too familiar. Her coworkers may not know what’s bothering her, but it’s clear to the audience. We know what she must do before she does and there’s no surprise once she does it.
Her overly lengthy tale is laboriously mirrored by that of little Marcus and his depressed state. He misses his brother and searches for comfort by seeking out a connection to the afterlife. His relationship with his troubled mother is occasionally touching, but the rest is more predictable drivel. The McLaren boys’ uneven performances don’t help, but compared to the child actors in Eastwood’s Gran Torino, these twins are stellar.
The only involving story is George’s. His troubled psychic is a fresh take on a profession usually depicted as stubborn know-it-alls proud of their clairvoyant nature. George is instead secluded, almost scared of the outside world. He’s not ashamed of his ability, but he despises it. Watching him search for a normal life is compelling enough to sustain its own film, but not strong enough to carry the two other bloated tales on its back. Also, even his admittedly cute conclusion feels forced along with the rest of Hereafter’s meditation on what comes next.
As outlined in the extended version of The Eastwood Factor, a feature-length documentary on Clint, his films, and his relationship with Warner Bros. studio, all of Eastwood’s films are classics. Though we know this not to be true, especially after sitting through his latest picture, the feature first included on the massive Clint Eastwood box set released last year and now in HD on the Hereafter Blu-ray does a convincing job of selling each picture as unique in its own regard. Though it does not address his latest film, it goes all the way through 2009’s Invictus and features loads of clips from just about every one of his past works.
It’s a fine tribute to a fine filmmaker, but it’s specifically made for die-hard Eastwood fans only. At least 60 percent of the documentary is made up of clips and the rest is Eastwood talking about himself. Of course we want to hear from the man, but it would have been nice to get a few of his famous coworkers on record as well. There are two behind-the-scenes looks at Eastwood visiting the recording studio named after him and the wardrobe storage facility dedicated to his films, but Eastwood seems slightly uncomfortable in both locations even for the brief time he’s there. Also, if you missed Unforgiven, Mystic River, or Million Dollar Baby, be ready to have each ending spoiled for you.
Beyond the 90 minute career retrospective, the Hereafter Blu-ray also contains nine featurettes on various aspects of the film’s conception, production, and intentions. Ranging from two- to seven-minutes in length, most of the information provided in the extras is fairly standard stuff. Still, it’s nice to see the entire cast as well as Clint show up repeatedly to offer even the dullest of tidbits. Even a few psychics, mediums, and readers show up to offer their thoughts on the afterlife. Though not as in depth as one may hope for, the topics covered generally are all any fan of the film or Eastwood could desire. Oh, and there’s also a DVD and digital copy of the film included – a nice bonus for anyone still waiting to make the transition from one medium to another.