Monday, April 18, 2011
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr, Richard Kind, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Derek Jacobi
Running Time: 129 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Had all of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter been as thrilling as its opening ten minutes it could have been one of the best films of 2010. In a different way, the rest impresses also, but those first ten minutes, a CGI re-creation of a real-life catastrophe, won't leave you anytime soon and might stand as one of the more frightening natural disaster effects sequences put on screen. When a movie starts this ambitiously and a director of Eastwood's caliber is attached, it makes sense lofty expectations accompany the rest of it and everyone would feel let down when it doesn't unfold as trailers would indicate. But what sold me is it's sincerity and upfront honesty with what it's trying to do. It's a well-acted introspective, thought provoking character study that's slightly frustrating since it doesn't do much wrong, but doesn't amount to anything monumental either. I'm not even sure it was meant to as Eastwood, perhaps too generously, wanted audiences to do most of the intellectual heavy lifting. Those who appreciate that approach will enjoy it while everyone else will feel left out in the cold, but at least give the director credit for making the movie he wanted to make, regardless of any pressure he could have encountered from the studio to deliver your typical supernatural thriller. This is anything but.
The film tells three parallel stories of people affected by death that eventually intertwine in a fairly straightforward manner, with few twists or surprises. The first, and most interesting, concerns blue-collar factory worker, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) a former professional psychic who views his supposed gift as curse, and one that threatens to ruin a potential relationship with enthusiastic cooking class partner Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard). French television reporter Marie Lelay (Cecile de France) is a survivor of The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, but not without being traumatized the near-death experience, its after effects interfering with every aspect of her life and work. And the U.K. twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are about to be removed from the custody of their drug-addicted mother when tragedy strikes and Marcus is killed, leaving a distraught Jason in search of reputable psychic, only to discover there are very few. You can probably guess where that storyline's going.
If this all seems to slightly similar to 2006's Babel with its vaguely interconnected narratives that's because it is, with a big difference being this isn't as emotionally manipulative or press nearly as many buttons as that far busier script did. It's definitely more low-key and introspective, primarily concerned with observing these how people view death. Some will find this boring but I was surprised how the lengthy over two-hour running time flew by despite there being little excitement outside the incredible opening sequence. Damon's story is by far the best and the scenes he has with Bryce Dallas Howard are easily the most engaging in the film because Damon (in his most somber mode here) perfectly conveys how George's abilities can really destroy any chance he has at forging a real relationship. Melanie wants a reading, but he tries to resist. By the time he's done with it she realizes she should have taken the warning and we realize she wasn't what she seemed. The other two stories don't click as well, though the reporter's storyline benefits greatly from having a documentary realism to it. Eastwood flirts with corniness at the end, but somehow I bought it because the ideas were at presented in an intelligently restrained way throughout, never forcing the issue.
Flopping at the box office late last year, it was one of the most poorly received and reviewed films of Eastwood's career, which probably speaks more to the public's distaste with the subject matter than anything else. For whatever reason mainstream moviegoers have a major aversion to seeing the afterlife depicted in popular entertainment. Whether it's What Dreams May Come, The Lovely Bones, or even recently proven on television with Lost, very few efforts dealing with this topic have ever been met with a favorable response. It seems there are certain preconceptions about how this should be presented on screen and whatever choice is made ends up being wrong if it doesn't match what's in audiences' minds. To Eastwood's credit, he doesn't seem to care. Hereafter works as an exploration of human behavior that probably won't come together how anyone wants it to, but that doesn't necessarily make the trip there any less absorbing.