Matters of life and death
Hereafter begins with the kind of scene most movies would build up to. Marie, a French telejournalist (Cécile De France), vacationing with her lover/boss on a tropical isle, is caught in the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people. Marie stands horrified at the wall of water roaring down on her, and all hell breaks loose on screen. In an old Irwin Allen-style disaster flick, this scene would be the climax of a turgid cardboard soap opera, but director Clint Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan use it to start things off, literally a huge bucket of cold water right smack in the face. Now are you paying attention?
One of those killed in the tsunami, for a few minutes anyhow, is Marie herself. Rescuers have abandoned their CPR efforts and turned away when she lurches back to life, vomiting sea water, while a dim vision quickly recedes from her mind’s eye of the little girl who was running beside her as the wave hit. When Marie returns to work in Paris, the experience leaves her rattled and haunted, trying to comprehend what happened to her.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, George (Matt Damon) agrees, with extreme reluctance, to do a psychic reading for a friend of his brother’s, relaying messages from the man’s late wife. George was once a professional psychic exploiting his genuine ability to commune with the dead, but the burden of it quickly burned him out; now he tries to escape into a factory job, rebuffing brother Billy (Jay Mohr), who prattles about his “gift.” It’s not a gift, George says, it’s a curse.
And in London, identical twins Marcus and Jason (real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren play both parts interchangeably) share a psychic bond that only increases when Jason is killed fleeing from a bunch of pavement bully boys. Marcus’ loving but drug-addicted mother (Lyndsey Marshal) gives him up to foster care while she enters detox, and the boy feels all the more keenly the loss of his other half. He’s withdrawn and uncommunicative, wearing Jason’s baseball cap everywhere he goes.
Back in San Francisco, George meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) in a night-school cooking class. Their tentative romance short-circuits when she learns (in an overheard phone message from Billy) of George’s ability. She begs for a reading, and he fearfully complies. He’s right; she can’t handle the message George relays from her dead father. George never sees her again, and is lonelier than ever.
In Paris, Marie’s boss urges her to take some time off to “recover”—then while she’s gone, he replaces her on the show and in his bed. Meanwhile, the publisher who commissioned a book from Marie on Francois Mitterand rejects the book she’s actually writing about her brush with death. In a wryly hilarious parody of French navel gazing (outside France, who even gives a rip about Francois Mitterand?), the publisher says that a book about life after death “would have to be written in English.”
Marie does just that, promptly sells the book and sets off to promote it at a London book fair, just as George, fleeing his brother’s renewed urgings, indulges his love of Dickens with his own trip to London.
Thus the Frenchwoman who escaped death, the English boy whose psyche was riven by it and the American man who touches the dead will all intersect at that book fair, in Peter Morgan’s own sly variation on the Dickensian coincidence.
When an 80-year-old director makes a movie about death, it’s tempting to see something valedictory in the gesture—a giving up, a laying down. But Hereafter confounds that; Eastwood’s movies may not be as action-filled as they once were, but they’re as vigorous as ever. After first slapping us to stunned attention, Eastwood and Morgan take their time unfolding their three-sided story, gently using real events (the tsunami, young Marcus barely missing the London Tube bombings) to anchor their characters’—and their audience’s—meditations on death.
Hereafter is an oddly lyrical and tender movie, thoughtfully inquisitive, well-constructed without being too pat or complacent. Somehow, it’s at once comforting and unsettling—both in the best possible way.