After Clint Eastwood’s recent successes with Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby, it might be easy to assume that the grizzled Hollywood veteran has hit some kind of late-career winning streak. However, if new film Hereafter proves anything, it’s that the photographer who never takes his finger off the shutter is bound to get at least a couple of great photos on the roll. Eastwood is prolific, having directed 34 films since 1971.
Hereafter is a film with a bleeding heart. Three human-interest stories of loss and disaster are told in parallel: three broken hearts in three different countries. In Paris, beautiful cosmopolitan TV reporter Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) is having trouble re-adjusting to her glamorous work-routine after having survived the full brunt of 2004’s Boxing Day tsunami. Shopping in an open-air market when the wave hit, she was nearly drowned when struck by debris, and her near-death experience took her briefly over to the ‘other side’. Similarly, London boy Marcus (Frankie McLaren) is desperately trying to seek out information on the supernatural, in order to re-connect with his twin brother Jason (George McLaren), who is killed in a car accident. Lastly there is American George Lonegan (Matt Damon), one of the few real psychics amongst the fakers and deluded, whose personal and work life has been decimated by his “curse” of always knowing too much about others and being constantly pestered by the bereaved.
When putting together any film that is made of seemingly unrelated parts, there are a few basic structural hurdles to get over. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the characters’ paths must eventually intersect. The meeting of Marie (newly convinced of the existence of the afterlife), the lonely Marcus and retired psychic George promises to be a monumental fortuitous revelation in the lives of each. It is therefore highly confusing when at around the two-thirds mark, all of the characters are still in their respective countries, continuing to be miserable. It seems clear that writer Peter Morgan first conceived this chance meeting between three characters who help to fulfil and redeem each other’s lives. Then he seemed to struggle with the problem of how to introduce the backgrounds of three different characters, of explaining why it is so important they had met. Morgan’s approach is arguably the most boring solution for audiences. Half the movie is backstory. What we get is a film that is largely exposition – much of which could be argued redundant in order to grasp the gravity of the meeting, which frankly isn’t all that satisfying. Then the film ends before we can really know the lasting consequences of this meeting.
Structure is not the only troubling aspect of Hereafter. Frankie MacLaren gives a laughably wooden performance as Marcus, delivering lines as though he is reading them off a cereal packet. Whilst it’s true he is only a young boy, he has little excuse when youth has proven no obstacle for actors such as Freddie Highmore, Abigail Breslin and Kodi Smit-McPhee. There are also problems with the special effects, which might have been passable in an action-thriller where they are a dime-a-dozen, but here they are conspicuous and overpowering. The one exception to this is the animation of the tsunami, which is exceptional; a scene where cars and rubble are washed down a market street is perhaps the most captivating in the film. Matt Damon’s troubled psychic character is by a shade the most intriguing, but his hang-ups are left unresolved due to minimal screen time and his finale is simply unsatisfying. Having felt I’d been promised a psychic Matt Damon being haunted by ghosts while in blue contact lenses and a black skivvy, I was a little miffed. Worst of all, this two-and-a-bit hour film is guilty of horrendous dragging. I certainly made contact with eternity during Hereafter!
Perhaps in order to counterbalance, or even remedy its deep committal to the esoteric, Hereafter takes in two of the most affecting disasters of recent history: the Boxing Day tsunami and the London Underground bombings. It does this in a very limited, but important context: to point out the number of families who lost loved ones, for whom the notion of the afterlife will be at the forefront of the mind. It is also careful to pick both natural and human-generated disasters, to show that ill will, accident and ‘the hand of God’ may all take lives, but that the costs are always the same. This will make the film a little more relevant for Australian viewers, who are contemplating the tragic implications of recent fires, floods and cyclones, and the horrific earthquake in Christchurch.
That of our level of comfort dealing with the possibility of an afterlife can fluctuate in response to events in our life is an interesting topic. Hereafter seems to point out that those who’ve lost someone close are the most receptive to supernatural forces, yet are also the most vulnerable to vultures posing as clairvoyants. The character of Marie Lelay is motivated by a desire to open scientific discussion on a topic that has previously been occupied principally by mumbo jumbo, smoke and mirrors. Yet her character has some kind of professional breakdown, behaving in a manner that makes her indistinguishable from all the other rambling nutters claiming to have had contact with ghosts or aliens or gods. Her problem is also the film’s problem. Hereafter first sets up discussions regarding truth and fallacy in the new-age industries, and near-death experiences and testimonies. It then discredits these very earnest discussions by declaring that ‘the afterlife is really real!’, depicting ghostly interventions and showing the viewer a very ‘TV’ depiction of the afterlife – wobbly silhouettes of the deceased flickering past and whispering inaudibly near a big bright light. This very disappointing special effect seems symptomatic of a film that never really states its position. The afterlife is present in this film, so is this a case attesting to its presence in the real world? Unfortunately, this question seems little like it will be answered – an unengaging film can’t hope to stimulate engaging discussion.
I have only to predict that like spiritually-suggestive snooze-fests Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Christmas Box, Hereafter is likely to make a splash in the touchy-feely off-season daytime television circuit.