The big question
Clint Eastwood takes his time unfolding characters and their individual spiritual battles
Hereafter has several stories to tell. None of them is particularly large, but the theme that links them—communication between the living and the dead—has considerable breadth and depth. It’s by way of those relatively small personal dramas that screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) brings some ostensibly oversized issues into something like the realm of everyday experience.
And Clint Eastwood, who is the director here, takes a patient, matter-of-fact approach to story and character alike, with results that yield some quietly surprising groundswells of emotion while maintaining an overall tone of calm, empathetic inquiry.
In the film’s casually portentous opening sequence, French television reporter Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) nearly dies in the Southeast Asian tsunami. From there we go to San Francisco, where George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a successful but nearly burnt-out psychic, is performing what he insists will be his last “reading.” The third tale in the mix involves preteen twin brothers Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) who will be separated first from their druggy single mom in London and then, after a fatal accident, from each other.
While those three characters’ experiences of the uncanny seem genuine, the film makes no great statements about spiritualism and the afterlife. Instead Eastwood and Morgan give low-key life to an open-ended narrative network of sympathetic connections and emotional potential. The tsunami sequence notwithstanding, Hereafter is a leisurely contemplative melodrama with an eye for intuitive emotional rapport.
Although the film pursues its mystical emotions and themes more or less simultaneously in San Francisco, Paris and London, it does not presume to take an Olympian point of view. Even the impressively staged tsunami sequence is portrayed largely through the frame of reference of a single character (the intrepid Marie), and by far the greater part of the film’s dramatic action is framed in terms of the characters’ emotional isolation among the living as much as the dead.
Eastwood keeps a tight rein on the obvious potential for corny sentiment in all this, and his understated approach salvages some staunch and compelling emotions from what could easily have been a merely maudlin mess. Plus, he gets very good work out of de France, whose air of distracted charm gives special meaning to Marie’s spiritual awakening, and Damon, who for a moment or two exudes the wisdom and gravity of a much older and oft-tested survivor of spiritual battles.
The McLaren brothers make a nicely mixed impression as well, giving the twins a look of haunted innocence—which suits the circumstances of their family’s dramas while also echoing similar qualities (albeit differently expressed) in George and Marie. And several of the supporting performances make pungent contributions to the gently complicated emotional mix—Jay Mohr as George’s blithely entrepreneurial but nonetheless supportive brother, Richard Kind as a grieving widower to whom George reluctantly ministers, and—best of all—Bryce Dallas Howard as Melanie, the somewhat pixilated young woman with whom George has a brief but doomed flirtation in a night-school cooking class.
The film ends on a happy note that is somewhat baffling, even with its attendant invocation of the spirit and work of Charles Dickens. But there’s enough Dickensian soulfulness in the overall journey to remind us that nothing in these emotional travails is simple let alone final and complete.