I don’t feel strongly either way about Clint Eastwood as a director, but I respect his work and, more importantly, his love of classic films. It shows so clearly in all of his efforts, and cine-nerds who’ve studied classic directors, particularly John Ford, get what Eastwood is going for in his work. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Eastwood dips a little too deeply in the pool of mawkish sentimentality; which it can be argued that Ford did too, but Ford was just better at nestling it into his films. While I do find Eastwood’s near total lack of cynicism compelling, I haven’t liked a film of his since “Mystic River” and, before that, “Unforgiven.” Yet I’m always willing to give Eastwood a shot and, in the case of “Hereafter,” I’m really glad I did.
Here Eastwood takes three divergent storylines about people affected by death and, more importantly, the afterlife, and runs them all side-by-side effortlessly. We meet George (Matt Damon), a man with a gift (or, in his mind, a curse) where if he touches your hand or even brushes against you, he can speak to your dead relatives who tell him all about you, including your deepest kept secrets. It’s made his life impossible to control and he hates this ability but he especially hates always being right about the aftermath of his readings and the effect they have on people. Meanwhile over in France, we meet tough and beautiful investigative reporter Marie (Cécile De France), who survived a downright terrifying tsunami that actually showed her a glimpse into the afterlife. Forever changed by the event, she embarks on a search for “what it all means” that will forever change everything about her life. Finally, there’s young Londoner Marcus (George McLaren), who’s suffered a horrible, upsetting loss in his life that sends him on a search for meaning in life as well, but when you’re around ten years old, that search is something quite different.
“Hereafter” moves really well considering the huge questions, broad landscapes and divergent stories it tells and each area is handled perfectly. I was never left wanting a quick return to any particular story and was really interested in how each one would resolve. What Eastwood does so well here is he uses each story in an almost vignette style and, while the characters know nothing of each other (at first), he uses each scene to add to the topic at hand; which is: what happens when you die. In a big picture sense all the characters will end up in the same place (ie; dead, someday) and it would be silly not to suggest “Hereafter” might be Eastwood striking up a pretty relevant topic personally as he has just turned 80. I won’t go so far as to say “Hereafter” is super “personal,” but there’s a definite air of personal interest flowing through the film.
All of the lead actors in the film are great and I really dug Damon’s toned down, slow-burn performance as an everyman with an extraordinary ability. Cécile De France, who I completely didn’t recognize as the lead from “High Tension,” does great work as a strong woman with power and prestige who is crushed by the rubble of life and is forced to rise from the ashes. Even the smaller, supporting roles by Jay Mohr and Bryce Dallas Howard are outstanding. But the star here is Eastwood, who uses a languid style to flow seamlessly into various worlds, both real and metaphysical.
As I mentioned earlier, I often find Eastwood to be non-cynical to the point of schmaltzy. The mothering issues in “The Changeling” made me think the film was the comedy hit of the year, and I felt every heart-tugging string in “Million Dollar Baby” was a rope dangling from the ceiling, but here it worked for me. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit “Hereafter” choked me up two or three times. There’s a scene in a cooking class in which Damon and Howard are blindfolded and tasting food that was one of the most sexy and fun scenes I’ve seen in a while and each character gets some really nice, big moments to shine and reflect on their situation throughout.
Then again, while “Hereafter” has thrilling set-pieces, intriguing characters and covers some pretty big topics, it ends up feeling like what would have happened if M. Night Shyamalan had directed “Sleepless in Seattle.” The thing is, I’m o.k. with that as I kind of love “Sleepless in Seattle” and might be the only movie geek in America who hasn’t given up on Shyamalan. In fact I’d go so far as to say “Hereafter” leans more towards the Frank Capra side of storytelling and not as much in the Ford realm as we’ve become accustomed to with Eastwood. All in all, “Hereafter” is a sweet little gem of a date movie but if you want something dark and depressing, stay away at all costs. And above all, leave your snarky cynicism at the door.