George (Matt Damon) is a blue-collar American who has a special connection to the afterlife. On the other side of the world, Marie (Cécile de France), a French journalist, has a near-death experience that shakes her reality. And when Marcus (Frankie McLaren, George McLaren), a London schoolboy, loses the person closest to him, he desperately needs answers. Each on a path in search of the truth, their lives will intersect, forever changed by what they believe might-or must-exist in the hereafter.
In Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) doesn't see dead people, but he can talk to them. In a world of charlatan psychics, fakers and phoneys, George is the real thing. To hook up with the dear departed, all has to do is hold the hands of his 'patient' (that is the bereaved) and he's on the hotline to the Other Side. Like some dutiful assistant, he dictates messages from the great beyond to the eager souls of the here and now with an acuity and accuracy that leaves his clients gasping for more and George worn out (and perhaps a little guilty). During these encounters, filmed by Eastwood with gloomy light and tell-all close-ups, Damon squeezes his eyes closed; this is a little disconcerting, mostly because he seems like he's contemplating a difficult maths problem rather than pondering the metaphysical.
This isn't to suggest that Damon seems unhappy in the role or isn't any good. Actually, I don't think I've ever seen Damon deliver a part where he has to be so bottled up. An energetic and lively actor (check out True Grit), Damon is playing a guy here who has shut off to intimacy. In the story of the film he has given up the psychic business, and all money that gives with it, mostly because it's a downer, since truckin' with the dead is "no way to live."
George does have a light side; he's a big Dickens fan. (He wiles away the late evening hours by listening to talking book versions of the great man's works.) The screenwriter here is Peter Morgan, famous for the epigrammatic style of things like The Queen. He certainly seems a literate fellow; Morgan's yarn is long, complicated and as sprawling and detailed as an airport novel.
Set on three continents (well, I think it was three, I stopped counting after awhile), the action of Hereafter is split between Damon's George in San Francisco; a French journalist, Marie (Cecile de Fracne), who, after a near-drowning, comes to believe that there is something after death; and Marcus, an English lad, who yearns for his dead twin brother (both boys are played by twins George and Frankie McLaren).
Dickens loved to use coincidence and the fortuitous encounter to keep his tales barrelling along – and so does Morgan. (Was the Dickens subplot a nice meta-ironic in-joke for all the big readers in the audience?) He pulls the parallel strands of action together after several lengthy side-plots; George has a bittersweet encounter with nice girl Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) after meeting her in a night cooking class; Marie has to work out some romantic intrigue with her boss/lover Thierry Neuvic; meanwhile, Marcus is adopted out to foster parents after his mother goes into rehab. Orphans, hidden identities, freshly discovered talents"¦very Dickensian.
The plotting maybe overheated but every thing else about Hereafter is low key, well, everything except the opening, where Eastwood and co. stage a spectacular sequence where a tsunami sweeps all before it in some unnamed sea resort. It’s like Eastwood has suddenly channelled Michael Bay, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg (one of this films executive producers). Water whirls, the sound erupts, things break, stuff explodes"¦ all done in the kind of seamless balletic choreography that CGI techs seem to love. It’s a real grabber of a set-up but once the movie starts proper it’s clear Eastwood has no intention of building up to a bigger and bulkier action-climax.
Special effects these days have a way of making chaos elegant; to make destruction ugly and disquieting would be letting the side down. Eastwood, a notoriously sober director who prefers the hard whack to glitzy tack, takes Hereafter's quasi sci-fi/supernatural plot and turns it into a quiet melodrama. There are moments in the script that offer up scenes that would be in another kind of gee-whiz set pieces, like the bits where we get fragmentary glimpses of what we assume must be the afterlife. But Eastwood throws these beats away with hackwork; shadowy silhouettes, and blinding lighting design borrowed carelessly from an event rock-show.
Still, there is something rather comforting in Eastwood's earthbound approach; he doesn't want to create awe, or even affirm that there's something"¦ there. Instead, the film seems serious about the desperate need for people to heal psychic wounds. This recalls Mystic River, one of Eastwood's best movies, where victims of trauma are made outcast because they are 'damaged goods'. I suppose it's fair to say that Hereafter is the kind of picture that's hard to take, if only because its earnest about something that's best consumed late night on pay TV. Eastwood in his own severe, but casual way, using Morgan's screenplay, does, though, make a compelling point about the modern obsession for reinvention. To avoid death (actual or spiritual) by searching out easy answers is a folly.
Hereafter is worth taking seriously because, finally, it’s about taking care to live decently – not piously, or proudly, but honestly, in the here and now.