Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I’m a sucker for a movie with a giant wave in it, so you can trust me when I say the tsunami in the opening sequence of Hereafter is a masterpiece. A seamless mixture of CGI and good old-fashioned tank time, it recreates the Asian disaster of 2004 with devastating verisimilitude and intensity. My fellow tidal wave freaks won’t want to miss this one. (UPDATE: It's been pulled from theaters in Japan, since the tsunami opener is too realistic for traumatized audiences there.) As for everybody else, I’m pretty sure you can find a better way to spend your ten bucks.

The movies Clint Eastwood directs have the emotional intensity and bluntness of the Depression-era Warner Brothers pictures he probably saw as a kid, the ones starring people like Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney. That hyped-up realism works well in combination with a subtle script like Bird or A Perfect World, but when Eastwood starts with a simplistic script it can feel punishingly heavyhanded, as it did in Flags of Our Fathers/Letter from Iwo Jima and Changeling.

Hereafter started as a screenplay by Peter Morgan, who made a sharp turn from the dramatizations of historical turning points that he’s best known for (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) to grapple with the question of what happens after death. Morgan bats aside religious fanatics and phony psychics to focus on regular people grappling with death, sidestepping the melodramatic dice-loading that throws some of Eastwood’s movies off balance. So far so good, but Hereafter bends too far in the other direction, leaching nearly all the drama from a screenplay studded with death and disaster.

Morgan braids three stories together, in the trendy style spawned by Babel and Crash. The individual stories are told well enough, unfolding at an unhurried but efficient pace and only sometimes lapsing into clunky exposition. Morgan packs information into each of the three as generously as a deli chef stuffing a Reuben, and Eastwood’s direction tells us even more (we always know where we are when we switch cities, for instance, because of the landmarks his camera lingers on).

The three main characters are Marcus (the role was shared by twin brothers Frankie and George McLaren), a sad English boy pining for his recently deceased twin brother Jason; Marie (Cécile De France), a French journalist who lost her coveted job as a 60 Minutes-type reporter after being brought to the brink of death by the tsunami; and George (Matt Damon), an American who found he could communicate with the dead after briefly dying and being brought back to life as a child. George used to do psychic readings for a living, but he quit because, as he keeps telling the older brother who tries to convince him to cash in on his gift: “It’s not a gift, Billy. It’s a curse. It ruins any chance I have at a normal life. I feel like a freak.”

But when the three ultimately converge, their meeting feels hopelessly contrived. Morgan, who name-checks Dickens heavily throughout, may be reaching for a Dickensian feel with this and the other melodramatic coincidences that stud the plot, but Dickens’ outlandish coincidences feel of a piece with his artfully exaggerated characters and plots, while Morgan’s carry us out of his generally prosaic story.

You’d think a film about what happens after death would have the courage to address the issue more directly, but Hereafter just gives us clichéd images of the afterlife and periodic protestations about how much scientific evidence there is to back them up. Does science have anything to say about whether the bright light and weightlessness and so on are transitory sensations we experience as we die, some final firing of the neurons, or a new state of being we enter into indefinitely after death? And if it’s the latter, why are our loved ones always right at hand and ready to talk, at least in the movies, as soon as a psychic makes contact with them? Even Ghost Town, which took itself far less seriously than this one does, had the grace to invent a story to explain that.

The longing Marcus feels for his lost family (he also loses his drug-addicted mother when she checks into a rehab facility after Jason’s death) is the only genuinely affecting emotion in a film that wants us to feel the strength of the ties that bind the living to the dead. Poor Matt Damon is given two romantic interests, but one feels more preposterous than the next. In the first, the hysterically overacting Bryce Dallas Howard flings herself at George like an Irish setter in heat. And in the second, Damon’s doughy regular-guy American is paired up with De France’s ultra-chic Parisienne to make the oddest couple since Matthau and Lemmon.

Meanwhile, Eastwood indulges his penchant for letting shadows puddle in the faces of his actors, which are often half or even wholly obscured. He’s obviously fond of that style, which worked in noir-tinged stories like Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. But here, it just makes an overdetermined, underdeveloped story feel even muddier.

Written for TimeOFF

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