To summarize the plot of Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter is to falsify the experience of seeing the film. So I’ll keep it brief.

Marie (Cécile De France), a French TV journalist on holiday in Indonesia, almost loses her life in the tsunami of December 26, 2004. Safe in Paris, flashbacks to the vision she had while drowning interfere with her hard-nosed political investigations. She accepts the advice of her producer (who is also her lover) to take a sabbatical and work on a book about Mitterrand, but this turns into an investigation of the hereafter. Marie loses both her lover and her standing as a journalist. Meanwhile in San Francisco, George (Matt Damon), a genuine psychic, resists the proposal of his wheeler-dealer brother to use his powers for profit. The ability to transmit messages from the dead to surviving loved ones has wrecked his life, and we see his budding romance with an effervescent but troubled young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) capsized by a “reading” she has coaxed out of him. And, in London, a boy named Marcus is so devastated by the death of his twin (the brothers are played by actual twins, Frankie and George McLaren) that he turns to spiritualists, all of them soon revealed as frauds. The three main characters finally turn up at a London book fair and, in different ways, solve one another’s problems.

Frankly, if I had read the above description before seeing Hereafter, I wouldn’t have bothered to see it. The parallel narrative streams wend, all too inevitably, out to one happy, sappy sea; the three lonely protagonists are just begging for comfort and cuddles, and cuddles and comfort await them. Furthermore, isn’t the use of the Indian Ocean tragedy a cheapening of a real-life catastrophe? And, whatever our own spiritual beliefs, aren’t all Hollywood forays into the hereafter (Ghost, What Dreams May Come, The Lovely Bones, etc.) just so much sentimental wish fulfillment and pseudoreligious drivel?

But a plot summary is not a movie. And, as I sat through Hereafter, I began to realize that Eastwood and his scriptwriter, Peter Morgan, were being neither cynical nor sentimental in their use of the supernatural. In fact, despite the movie’s title, they don’t appear to be primarily interested in the afterlife but rather in what happens in this life to people who find their everydayness dented by pain and loss. To be sure, because George’s readings always make successful contact with the dead, the film is asking us to accept the afterlife as a fact, but this is mainly a donnée—a narrative springboard for the adventures of three people desperate to steady themselves emotionally by seeking out, or fleeing, the paranormal.

And this is why the use of the December 26 tsunami is not cheap. Eastwood could have had his heroine experiencing her visions during a car accident or plane crash, but he needed to show not an isolated smash-up but an event that seemed, to those caught up in it, a sweeping away of all existence. In the movie’s first shot, cinematographer Tom Stern gives us a lovely, slow, horizontal pan along a Thai beach in late morning. Marie strolls among souvenir stands on a nearby boardwalk. On the soundtrack the chatter of vacationers, the bargaining of merchants, the frolicking of children, and the murmur of incoming tides are kept muffled, sporadic, even lulling. The whole world seems sun-soaked and infrangible. Then the ocean turns monstrous.

What follows is as impressive as it is appalling, and makes you realize how powerful and spectacular non-3D filmmaking can still be, not only because of the amazing visual effects by Michael Owens but in the way Eastwood shifts between Marie’s desperate flailing and wider shots of the devastation, which makes the horror both intimate and communal. Since we share her impression that the whole world came apart in seconds, it’s no wonder that Marie later has trouble focusing on day-to-day business. Her investigation of near-death visions is a search for perspective, intactness. And it is this search that Peter Morgan and Clint Eastwood take seriously, not the verification of the supernatural.

The child Marcus undertakes a corresponding search. Since their single mom’s boozing and pill-popping put the twins in danger of becoming wards of the state, Marcus and Jason learned to work as a team in covering up for her whenever social services came calling. So each feels not only a twin’s typical closeness to his sibling but also a teammate’s need of the other’s support. When Jason dies, Marcus feels spiritually halved and his pursuit of the paranormal is a quest for wholeness. The satirical skewering of bogus spiritualism, in a wonderfully acted and edited episode, is both hilarious and desolating, because we empathize with Marcus’s crushing loneliness.

By contrast, George is in constant contact with the spiritual world and hates it. His yearning for normality turns him toward a very physical world: the steel beams of his nine-to-five construction job and the world of food in a cooking class by night, where another sort of physicality comes into play when he is paired off with a beautiful woman. Even his love of Dickens is connected to the material world: he lies in bed listening to a recording of David Copperfield’s sensuous description of Mr. Micawber making punch for his happy family.

It is, of course, much too tidy that all three protagonists achieve happiness when their paths converge in London. (Dickens would have applauded.) Yet the pivotal scene that makes that happiness possible isn’t tidy at all and is so subtly accomplished that it’s easy to miss the whole point of it. George’s “reading” for Marcus does indeed bring the boy into contact with his dead twin, but the message conveyed is that Marcus is now on his own, and this fails to comfort him. Then comes a marvelous transition that can be detected only in Matt Damon’s face, since it’s not carried out in the dialogue. Having delivered the initial message, George loses contact with the spirit world but (spoiler alert), seeing Marcus’s distress, he does something he’s never done before—he lies. Improvising a pep talk and passing it off as Jason’s, George renews Marcus’s courage. And there is an unexpected side effect (though this is kept ambiguous): George seems to lose his unwanted psychic powers, finally managing to touch a woman he desires without being plunged into her psychic existence. The very human deed of a compassionate falsehood has put the supernatural to flight.

A second viewing of Hereafter underlines its flaws as well as its virtues. It is overly programmed toward a happy ending. The dialogue, mostly incisive and witty, turns merely functional in the exchanges between Marcus and his mother and between George and his brother. The cooking-class scenes that spark a romance are beautifully staged but Eastwood tolerates coyness in the performance of Bryce Dallas Howard, though she’s fine later in her emotional collapse. The very last scene of promised romance for Marie and George teeters on the brink of mush and then is pushed right in by Eastwood’s own soundtrack score for guitar and piano.

 Even worse is a scene featuring the 2005 London train bombings. While the tsunami sequence yields a likely and poignant revelation, the terrorist strike as presented here is just an opportunity for a ghost to rescue a lucky person while dozens of innocents (presumably without such guardian angels) must die.

Matt Damon has become a master at indicating the depth beneath still waters. Cécile De France, a gamine bruised by experience, possesses the actor’s equivalent of perfect pitch: she knows how far to take pathos before deflecting it into wryness or anger. I have no idea whether the McLaren twins possess professional talent, but Eastwood has plucked endearing performances from them. Notable in the supporting cast is Steve Schirripa, who brings Falstaffian gusto to the role of the cook.

Eastwood and Morgan have won few critical rewards for stepping outside their usual artistic purlieus. Where is the political acidity of Morgan’s Frost/Nixon and The Queen? Where is the bracing bitterness of the director’s Unforgiven? Have these two gone soft? Is Eastwood content with anodyne lies as old age overwhelms him? I can only reply that Hereafter, whatever its flaws, is a film that is hardheaded about an easily sentimentalized subject, that never drifts into pseudomysticism, that glimpses ghosts but is most deeply concerned with humanity.

Published in the 2010-11-19 issue: View Contents
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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