Clint Eastwood’s new film isn’t dead, just resting
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Cast: Matt Damon, Cécile de France
Who would have thought that, after decades (and decades) as Hollywood’s premier tough guy, Clint Eastwood would become such a stodgy formalist as a filmmaker? Not to insult his oeuvre or anything. Invictus, Changeling, Letters from Iwo Jima, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Bridges of Madison County: They’re all classy pieces of old-school Hollywood cinema. Eastwood learned his lessons working for some of the finest directors in the business, and he knows how to construct a film with the best of them. But he seems more inclined toward stoic “Masterpiece Theatre”-inspired melodramas than anything with a discernible pulse.
Hereafter, Eastwood’s newest stint behind the camera, is a mature film all right. It’s constructed like something out of “This Old House,” with all the gables, beadboard wainscoting and hand-split wood-shake roofing of a master craftsman. But it’s a work of art that requires a Herculean amount of patience to get through. And I’m not so sure that patience ends up being rewarded.
The film is a Babel-inspired tapestry of story threads in which various people around the globe are linked together by the thin strands of fate. Like so many of those films, though, the characters in Hereafter aren’t bound to one another because their stories are actually, logically, realistically interconnected, but rather because of some grand, New Agey “we are all connected” conceit.
The film starts out with a famous French television journalist named Marie LeLay (Cécile de France from High Tension) on vacation in Indonesia. A sudden tsunami (a stunning sequence, it must be noted) destroys the island and nearly kills Marie, who becomes haunted by her near-death experience. Meanwhile, over in England, a young lad named Marcus (Frankie McLaren) is devastated by the accidental death of his twin brother. Finally, in San Francisco, we have poor, lonely George Lonegan (Matt Damon). Lonegan was once a world-famous psychic, capable of speaking with the dead. But a career spent dealing with unhappy ghosts and traumatized people has left him depressed and hermitlike. Now he hides from his abilities, working as a forklift operator in a warehouse.
Obviously, these three characters will cross paths at some point. Clearly, George will break out of his funk, help Marie and Marcus with their problems, and in the process ... heal his own broken heart. Sounds predictable as hell, but let’s get to it.
Unfortunately, Hereafter is in no hurry to get to that inevitable point. Clocking in at two hours and 10 minutes (and feeling like three hours and 10 minutes easily), Hereafter sets the dial to “meander.” George works at his job, argues with his brother (Jay Mohr), flirts with a cute girl (Bryce Dallas Howard), takes a cooking class at continuing education (really?) and generally bemoans his supernatural abilities. Audiences will be forgiven for wondering if George, Marie and Marcus will ever get around to crossing paths.
They do. Eventually. And for purely coincidental reasons. The script by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon) is more of a meditation than a movie. Admittedly, it’s filled with intelligent dialogue and does work up some interesting characters. It’s easy enough to sympathize with our trio of sad sacks, even if they do spend most of their time manifesting their existential angst by being terribly distracted when other people are trying to speak to them. De France is excellent. Damon is good. McLaren is OK. Howard is ... largely incidental.
The problem is that, in the end, Hereafter doesn’t seem terribly pointed. Yes, people get bummed out about death. That’s generally a given. But Hereafter doesn’t espouse any particular theological, cosmological or metaphysical point about said bummed-outedness. The film seems to hint that traditional religion is no real help, although its endorsement of the afterlife—all tunnels of light and crowds of dead relatives—seems doggedly conventional. The film also admits that most spiritualists who claim to speak with the dead are just con men. Except for the really sincere ones who aren’t. As a result, the film finds no real difference between the two. Real or fake, a clairvoyant is going to deliver the exact same message: “Your dead mother/father/brother loves you and wants you to go on with your life and be happy.” Really? Thanks for the news flash.
Pensive, contemplative and lapped by waves of melancholy, Hereafter is a worthy examination of mortality. By the same token, this is also a film that manages to be languid and lyrical even while watching a 30-foot tsunami sweep down a crowded city street. Like Babel, Crash and Syriana, Hereafter may end up being one of those highly regarded, widely celebrated Oscar winners that everybody finds too boring to actually sit through.