There have been a helluva lot of deaths in the 31 feature films Clint Eastwood has directed, but I can’t remember too many of the doomed characters in them giving much thought to the afterlife. How, then, to account for the flirtation with the idea that there’s something out there bigger than all of us in “Hereafter,” a quiet, contemplative and absorbing inquiry into how jarring incidents can make you look at life from an entirely different perspective than you’ve done all along.? Is it that Eastwood, at 80, is ruminating about mortality in a way he never did before? Does it have anything to do with his beloved mother’s death, at 96, four years ago? Or is it just that he liked Peter Morgan’s atypical script, which offered one of the most prolific directors in the United States the opportunity to tackle yet another fresh and unpredictable topic?
The answer no doubt lies in a combination of all of the above, as well as in a desire to surprise and to a certain extent confound his audience. Written by the English scribe best known for “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen,” “Hereafter” invites one to entertain the notions that there might be some form of consciousness after death and that communication across the divide could be possible. Granted, this is a hope as ancient as time and perhaps something that, the older one becomes, one would like to believe in.
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But the quality that is most becoming about the film is what I would call its healthy agnosticism. Eastwood and Morgan are not pushing an agenda of belief here, but neither are they out to debunk or scoff; nor, to their possible commercial detriment, are they intent upon tantalizing or spooking the audience n the manner of “The Sixth Sense.” Instead, they are refreshingly open-minded on a subject it is easy to feel superior to but difficult to rule out with absolute certainty.
Divided into three story strands that only begin pulling together after about 80 minutes, the film focuses upon people from three different Western countries, each in a different stage of life and outlook. George (Matt Damon) is a San Francisco psychic who, in a crisis of conscience, wants to back off from his profession; Marie (Cecile De France) is a French TV newscaster who appears to drown in a tsunami on a Pacific island but is miraculously resurrected, while young Marcus (Frankie McLaren) sees his twin brother accidentally killed right in front of him on a London street.
George, who seems to have a natural gift for insight into the lives of others, has just hit the wall, although there are sly hints he may be something of a charleton who simply can’t bring himself to fool people anymore. Despite the admonitions of his brother (Jay Mohr) to cash in on his talents, George tries to turn away, enrolling in an Italian cooking class where he meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), a subplot that’s the weakest part of the film.
By contrast, the most compelling drama centers upon Marie, just as the best performance comes from De France. In the bracing 10-minute opening sequence, Marie walks from her resort hotel into the island’s local town when, out of nowhere, giant waves come rolling down the main street, sweeping up her and countless others. For a spell, she is presumed dead, but while she teeters on the brink she sees vague figures and silhouettes.
Back in Paris, Marie feels out of synch, somehow different. Taking a break from her usual broadcasting job, she undertakes a book project (a biography of Francois Mitterand, of all things), but ultimately her brush with death drives her to start writing something entirely different, called “Hereafter.”
Left in foster care in London with his brother gone and mum in rehab, Marcus does a tour of crackpot psychics and mediums before finding George’s website. In this world of electronic media, mental telepathy and visions of possible other dimensions, it’s rather touching that the story all comes together at the London Book Fair, where the three main characters cross paths in way that will, it least, bring them to early stages of resolution in what likely be long journeys for each of them.
However, after the long, intertwining build-up, a bit more is expected at the conclusion than is actually delivered, leaving the film with a relatively soft ending rather than delivering a sharp insight into the mysterious matters that have been gently explored for a couple of hours. On balance, Eastwood’s open, and open-minded, approach pays significant dividends, but putting a finer point on things might have provided not only a welcome dramatic jolt but provoked some residual pondering by viewers.
That said, the film has distinctive ambitions, visits unusual places and creates a special mood that are somewhere in the neighborhood of haunting, an achievement enhanced by the director’s own musical score and Tom Stern’s atmospheric cinematography, which also features a moving camera more than is the norm in Eastwood’s films. It’s an offbeat, unexpected work with a thoughtful, rational approach to material usually dealt with in hyperbolic, sensationalistic terms.