(by Dustin Putman
At eighty years old, director Clint Eastwood impressively keeps plugging away, compiling a body of work as diverse as it is admittedly hit-and-miss. For every couple strong efforts (2004's "Million Dollar Baby," 2006's "Letters from Iwo Jima," 2008's "Changeling," and 2008's "Gran Torino") there is the occasional misstep (the soppy mess that is 2009's "Invictus" still haunts my waking hours). Like 2006's "Flags of Our Fathers," "Hereafter" falls somewhere in the middle as a noble drama lacking the depth and emotional weight it is seeking. A compendium of story sketches yearning to be better-formed, the picture wrestles with connective subject matter involving death, loss, and the unknown variable that is the afterlife. While screenwriter Peter Morgan (2008's "Frost/Nixon") correctly provides few answers while still offering a sense of hope for what comes next after worldly life has passed, his ensemble of characters are more ciphers than fleshed-out creations and the journeys they take barely scratch the surface of the themes he wishes to meditate over. Article continues below
"Babel"-esque in its design (but nowhere near as successful or impacting), "Hereafter" centers on three strangers, each living in a different country but linked through their desire to find solace while facing questions about mortality. When French journalist Marie LeLay (Cecile de France) survives a traumatic near-death experience while vacationing in Indonesia, she returns home a changed person, preoccupied by her memories during the brief period when she stopped breathing. As her relationship with boyfriend Didier (Thierry Neuvic) grows distant, she begins work on a book about the hereafter much to the consternation of a publisher who expects her to instead pen a study of Francois Mitterrand. In London, young Marcus (Frankie McLaren) is devastated when twin brother Jason (George McLaren) is hit by a car and killed. Placed in a foster home while his grieving, drug-addled mother (Lyndsey Marshal) seeks help, Marcus sets out to find a way to contact Jason from the beyond. And, in San Francisco, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) has tried to distance himself from profiting off his psychic abilities by getting a factory job, but can't seem to escape his reputation. When he meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) in a culinary class and they hit it off, he fears their burgeoning relationship will be cut short once she finds out about his powers.
"Hereafter" opens with a frightening bang, a portrayal of a tsunami that ravages the Indonesian coast and very nearly costs Marie her life. Top-notch visual effects and a refusal to treat it like over-the-top disaster movie fodder combine for a startling set-piece that makes the point of how unpredictable the world is and how quickly things can change in the blink of an eye. The rest of the narrative is played in a lower, more elegiac, key, the unhurried pace an asset rather than a hindrance. What does become problematic is the repetition with which it is told, alternating between three storylines in a predictable circular pattern that becomes rigid and stodgy. Furthermore, none of them achieve the vitality and development needed to give them full dramatic lift-off. Marie becomes fascinated with what she experienced during her near-drowning and travels to a hospice in the Alps for research. Marcus wears Jason's hat around and asks that a second bed be placed beside his at his foster home. Most of the psychics he seeks out are frauds. George struggles with a gift he sees as a curse, turning down potential clients seeking his guidance as he strives for normalcy. Director Clint Eastwood doesn't explore the subject or his characters much more than that, failing to delve into their inner beings or give them enough individual screen time to ably paint day-to-day three-dimensional lives for them.
Matt Damon (2010's "Green Zone"), Cecile de France (2005's "High Tension") and newcomer George McLaren share leading role duties in their respective story segments. Damon gives a nicely restrained performance as George, a quiet mournfulness to his work helping the viewer to understand him better than the script does. As Marie, Cecile de France is excellent in the way that she can convey so much without saying a word. No matter what she is doing on the screen, she makes it believable. Despite great expressive eyes, McLaren is the weakest link as Marcus, faced with the unthinkable prospect of going through the rest of his life without his twin brother. Perhaps he will improve with experience, but McLaren's acting is highly uneven here, each truthful moment hindered by one that comes off as stilted or dishonest. Any of these three figures deserves their own film rather than the same one where they must vie for attention and prominence. In the one subplot that does work very well—it may be the picture's high point—Bryce Dallas Howard (2010's "Eclipse") is an exquisite burst of energy and soulfulness as cooking classmate Melanie, whom George shares a surprisingly sexy scene with where they feed each other different foods while blindfolded. Howard is in and out of the proceedings too fast, but her character's unspoken past and the brutally abrupt outcome of her relationship with George linger for the duration.
There have been plenty of recent motion pictures revolving around the fleeting, unpredictable nature of life and death, and "Hereafter" comes off as minor, even shallow, next to the powerful, encompassing likes of 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," 2008's "Synecdoche, New York," and 2010's "Enter the Void." As the film winds down and the three central characters close in on one another, director Clint Eastwood aims for a catharsis that does not come. Things do not draw to a satisfying conclusion so much as they tidily are left hanging on the suggestion of happier days ahead. This would be all well and good, but Eastwood plays it with a simplistic, too-saccharine hand, and his pat, obvious music score doesn't help in underscoring its fade to black. Because the topics at its core are so universal, it's not unreasonable to have expected a greater affecting wallop from "Hereafter." A movie of this sort should never leave the viewer cold, and that, alas, is what this one does.