Shifting gears to a softer, gauzier mood, Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter finds the masterful icon charting new terrain. Slavish fans of his rugged Westerns, left-wing war canvases and kidney-punch gangster epics may be appalled to find him in a reflective frame of mind about life after death and the supernatural. Truly, romantic confections with soft marshmallow centers are not his strong suit (remember the god-awful Bridges of Madison County?), but not to worry. The grizzled director does not appear in it, and there is nothing awkward or mawkish about it. Hereafter might be tender, but in no way is it the work of a tenderfoot. It’s a change of pace, but it exemplifies every carefully honed aspect of the treasured director’s craft. Besides, Eastwood has earned the right to make any kind of movie he wants (at unthinkable expense), and when a man reaches his midnight years, it’s perfectly understandable that he starts contemplating the afterlife.
With an intriguing screenplay by Peter Morgan that is worlds away from his politically character-driven biopics The Queen and Frost/Nixon, the surprising and often insightful Hereafter follows three separate but parallel narratives set in Paris, San Francisco and London, connected by a thin metaphysical thread involving a reluctant psychic (Matt Damon) that remains compelling and artfully constructed throughout.
Losing none of his grip at 80, the director opens with a spectacular, jaw-dropping scene in a peaceful Indian Ocean beach resort suddenly overwhelmed and wiped away by the disaster and destruction of the 2004 tsunami. Marie (Cécile De France), a vacationing French television reporter, is shopping for souvenirs when she is swept away by the mighty waves and knocked unconscious. While two strangers try to save her, she drifts into an otherworldly vision of “the other side.” Even after she is revived, she returns to Paris transformed by her near-death experience.
Cut to San Francisco, where George (Damon) tries vainly to escape his past as a psychic by working in a factory. Having developed his ability to communicate with the dead after almost dying from a brain operation as a child, he now regards this talent as a curse. Avoiding people for fear of reading their minds, he searches for a new, pleasurable chapter in his life by enrolling in a 10-week course in Italian cooking. (Picture Matt Damon clumsily chopping garlic for arrabiata sauce.) Unavoidably, he takes a shine to another student trying to jump-start her life (Bryce Dallas Howard). When she finds out about his secret talent and insists on a reading, their budding relationship is tested.
Meanwhile, in England, twin brothers Marcus and Jason (remarkably well played by Frankie and George McLaren) try to cover for their junkie mother while social workers threaten to turn them over to government child-protection services. Ambushed by bullies and chased into the street, Jason is hit and killed by a truck, leaving Marcus grieving and haunted by the loss.
Marie, George and little Marcus have all been touched by death in different ways, and Eastwood does a fascinating job of cutting between stories while the characters seek peace and solace from their painful memories. In Paris, Marie takes a leave of absence from her job as a TV reporter after going blank on the air, blacking out after recurring visions of the moments when she was pronounced drowned, and writes a book about psychic phenomena. In England, Marcus makes the rounds of spiritual hacks in a desperate need to communicate with his dead brother, disillusioned until he reads about George.
The three stories finally meld in London, where George goes to get away from his brother’s nagging to form a business capitalizing on his powers, Marie is appearing on a book tour, and Marcus follows George back to his hotel from a book fair. The denouement seems contrived and not entirely comfortable, and I hoped for a more convincing finale from the astute Morgan than the creaky and fractured ending pictured here. Still, Eastwood covers his bases; there is even a healthy dose of skepticism throughout, and I admire the way the film is in no hurry to move things along briskly. We get to know and like the characters before we rush to judgment. The actors do well enough by the material, although Damon’s pleasant but meaningless voice, unsupported by the kind of depth he showed in his best film The Talented Mr. Ripley deprives him of any human dimensions. Yet he still makes you believe him, working from sheer impulse.
People expecting clever editing or tricky camera movements will be almost as disappointed as those anticipating a smash ending with special effects. (The big effects are all in the tsunami sequence.) Still, there is plenty of excitement and pulse in Hereafter, as well as a reluctance to provide easy answers to life’s great mysteries. I’m happy to see a great director take on the challenge of new and different material with his customary grace and impressive two-fisted technique intact. In the cinema, like the Cordon Bleu, cooking up elegance without fluff is always welcome, and Eastwood is a master chef.