Hereafter is Clint Eastwood’s latest soapbox, proving that the octogenarian director has neither lost his flare for the dramatic nor his moralistic pulpit. In the film’s opening moments, he provides perhaps his most technically resplendent sequence, executing a massive natural disaster, a tsunami, with a camera that whips and winds with the current of an overflowing sea. Yet from that point on, the curmudgeonly Eastwood we have come to know in the past decade drags out a boring tale of love, loss and the afterlife. It is, to say the least, a snooze.
Taking advantage of one of the easiest ways of duping an audience into thinking they are watching a tale of emotional discovery, Hereafter relies on intertwining, seemingly unrelated plot lines. There are three in this film. George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a San Francisco based psychic trying to lay low after a successful run as a supernatural healer. Marie LeLay (Cécile De France) is a Parisian news anchor (and Blackberry spokeswoman) whose extreme brush with death leads her to put her career on hold. Finally, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are precocious twins who try to keep their deadbeat mother in shape lest they be swept off by child services. The trick is to keep the plot moving forward in each story line, usually at the expense of character development. The trouble is that no one plot stands out above the rest, and their collision at the end is completely nonsensical.
Viewers may not be surprised to learn that Steven Spielberg played the role of Executive Producer on this film. Given his penchant for dabbling in projects under his purview, I wouldn’t be surprised if the aforementioned opening sequence didn’t have at least a little bit of his direction. As the tsunami breaks through an entire civilization, our perspective remains steady, changing only as emotionally necessary. Given the scope of the destruction, it sounds simpler than it actually is to pull this off. It is a powerhouse sequence, that is until a teddy bear turns into some kind of god-like talisman. Ironically, this is when it turns into a disaster film.
Hereafter also hinges on a very Spielbergian concept: heartache. Given that we know this is a story dealing with life after death, Eastwood immediately plays on our emotions. He lets us know that someone, if not everyone, will die before our eyes, but not before we gain an emotional connection to them. Those who have vilified Spielberg for this in the past will go on the attack if only for the excruciating introduction of Marcus and Jason, whose dreary lives are almost sure to end in horror. To make matters worse, for all the shoes that could have dropped on these people, for all the monsters lurking in closets, the one we end up with is eminently banal.
I’m not going to talk about performances; they’re all serviceable but none are stellar. Now it’s time to turn attention to perhaps the most surprising misstepper in this hard-to-love film: Peter Morgan. One of Britain’s top A-listers, it’s hard to believe that the drivel on screen came from his gifted pen. His fatal mistake is that the afterlife is dealt with as both a religious and a scientific reality. He doesn’t go to any lengths to defend either viewpoint. For example, a “scientist and atheist” in the film provides incontrovertible evidence that there is in fact life after death, but we are never allowed to look at that evidence. Moreover, we are never given the boundaries of this world of the dead. Instead, it remains unknown and uninteresting throughout. This kind of film requires the grounding of Science Fiction, a suspension of disbelief that is entirely unemotional. Morgan did not provide.
Ultimately, Hereafter falls flat for its weak story. Clint Eastwood remains an icon and a talented, steady director. When George takes on a client of his brother’s (Richard Kind as the client, Jay Mohr as his brother) the scene is dark, quiet and moody. He plays in the dark and can build a beautiful scene out of the thinnest of dialogue. In the end, however, it isn’t enough to overcome a story that will have you unintentionally rolling on the floor by the overwrought ending. “Is this for real?” was my internal monologue as the music crescendoed and credits took over. Alarmingly, yes, it is.