“I feel bad,” says Marie (Cécile de France). She’s on a jet from Indonesia to Paris, next to her married boss and boyfriend, Didier (Thierry Neuvic). He’s distracted, she’s exhausted, as she’s just survived a tsunami, emerging, rather stunningly, with just a few artfully positioned bruises. Marie thinks she feels bad because she’s a reporter and, she says, “I should have stayed to cover the story. I’ve never done that, run away from a story.” What Marie doesn’t guess but you know already, just 15 minutes into Hereafter, is that she’s found her story, or rather, her story has found her. And it’s pretty much the biggest story ever.
You know this because you saw what Marie saw when she was knocked out in the big wave and floated senseless for long minutes (seconds, anyway, in the film’s abridged version). As anonymous locals and other tourists are swept away and killed, she pops up on shore, where she seems drowned: her face is gray, her eyes rolled back, and she’s not breathing as two buff men try to resuscitate her. Only she’s not, quite, but instead looking at a crowd of white blurry figures set in a dark blurry space. This would be the film’s titular realm, and Marie not only comes back, but also finds herself so troubled by the experience that she can’t focus on her work or anything else when she gets home.
This disruption is what happens, according to Hereafter, when you almost die, or when you die and come back, or something like that. The details are murky and the visuals awfully corny, but the point is, there’s a hereafter. And now you’re going to hear about it for a couple of hours.
Sluggish and unimaginative, the movie, directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Peter Morgan, includes two stories in addition to Marie’s. One concerns a British boy named Marcus, very close to his twin Jason (Frankie and George McLaren). When he loses Jason to a terrible accident, little Marcus has to sort out not only that trauma but also his junkie mother’s subsequent inability to care for him. Social workers and foster parents do their best to console him, but Marcus is increasingly obsessed with finding Jason, seeking help from a series of psychics he finds online.
One of these, George (Matt Damon), lives in San Francisco and drives a loader in a warehouse. George has sworn off performing readings for money, because, he says more than once, it ruins any chance at a “normal life.” Despite his reluctance, you know that he’ll do more readings, a plot point initiated by his brother Billy (Jay Mohr), who pushes George to return to his former line of work. Though George explains repeatedly that his gift is really a curse, Billy insists that if they only revise the website and manage the gigs more carefully, they can make money and do good in the world. “It’s who you are,” Billy insists.
George knows that and doesn’t know it, though his ambivalence is more complicated than the film can manage. (The broader question of who anyone “is,” one that comes up in most all of Eastwood’s films, from Play Misty for Me to Unforgiven to Changeling), is here mostly lost amid the afterlifey pyrotechnics.) Damon indicates George’s burden in his bearing, looking simultaneously too sensitive and too benumbed. But Hereafter doesn’t trust the performance, and instead repeatedly literalizes George’s visions, which are of course much like Marie’s. Each time he touches a client’s hands, George is catapulted into the realm of blurry figures (the movie includes a jolting sound as George’s body jolts, underscoring that such spiritual travel is physically taxing). The readings scenes are thus made predictable when they should be wondrous, tedious rather than revelatory.
The most egregious staging of George’s problem begins with his interest in Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), his partner in an Italian cooking class. He tries hard to control and put off the inevitable moment when they first touch, knowing that he’ll then know too much about her story, but she’s so fractured and jittery that their seduction scene—they wear blindfolds in class while feeding one another mystery foods—is mostly painful to see. When she inevitably learns of his gift/curse and inevitably presses him to do a reading on her, George’s face briefly provides a terrific and terrifically subtle map of what he already knows, that Melanie’s background story prohibits their future. You also know this before the movie hammers it home, and may even feel relief for George that he’s rid of her. But it’s also excruciating that Melanie is reduced to his plot turn, sent off into a literal dark night while the trademark Eastwood music score signals her infinite sadness (someone please find him another composer, someone not named Eastwood).
George has slightly better luck with Marcus, their few scenes together shaped by what seems a mutual trust in quietness, storytelling without special-effected bells and whistles (save for yet another tiresome jolt into the blurry dimension). After Marcus announces, “I recognize you! You’re that psychic!”, George at first denies his identity, then rejects the child’s entreaties. Once they sit down, however, Marcus finds that his silence, so unnerving to his caregivers, makes sense to George, who mirrors it in a way that’s frankly charming. As the two sort through Jason’s apparently very chatty message to his brother (“I’ve got to concentrate,” George says, “This guy talks a lot!”), Marcus at last can look like the “kid” George sees in him, his smile at once childish, self-possessed, and knowing.
It’s too bad that Hereafter can’t believe in such moments, when stories are conveyed in subdued glances and slight gestures. While George tries to restrict the exploitation of his visions, his access to so many stories, Marie takes the movie’s approach, determined to share her journey to the blurry side with the world. It’s perhaps ironic that she’s unable to convince TV—her own professional medium—to take up her cause, and instead writes a book (which promotion leads to TV and other digital disseminations). George won’t need to read it to know her story, and neither do you.