Clint Eastwood has dealt a lot of death in his directorial efforts. In fact, out of all his titles, only The Bridges of Madison County stands as the one with not one on-screen passage in it (and even that one deals with the aftermath of its lead character's demise). So it's no great surprise that this inquisitive, always-daring filmmaker would take on a study of the afterlife with his new film Hereafter.
The film goes Iñárritu-lite on us in weaving together three disparate stories. One's rooted in France, and follows a TV reporter (Ceceile De France) reeling from a violent experience chronicled in the movie's harrowing opening (a rockingly-rendered tsunami that marks Eastwood's first foray into CGI effects). The second is set in London, where the surviving member of a set of twins (Frankie and George McLaren) struggles with getting closure (ugh!) following the death of his brother. And the third, in Eastwood-friendly San Francisco, examines the lonely life of a former professional psychic (Matt Damon) who's buried his ghost-talking abilities by beginning a lonely, less spectacular life as a dock worker.
Only the Damon sequences work well, mainly because of the actor's whispered, slightly dull but hearty performance. Also, we get the sense that the filmmaker can geographically relate to these scenes more deeply (I don't think Eastwood has set a film in Europe since 1975's The Eiger Sanction). Still, the most notable moments here--which meaningfully have more to do with life than death--take place at a cooking night school class where Damon flirts memorably with a fellow student, played by the alluring, slightly annoying Bryce Dallas Howard. (A note: these scenes also include an inexplicable appearance by Sopranos star Steve Schirripa as the class instructor; there's no reason these scenes should be hilarious because of him alone--it's certainly not due to what he actually does--but they're amusing nonetheless; it feels like a distracting inside joke is at work here, like we should be making fun of Schirripa, in his giant chef uniform, as Tony Soprano did when he first saw Bobby Bacala in that big orange hunting outfit).
Meanwhile, the London sequences are stiff and staid (though I do like Lyndsey Marshal as the kids' drug-addled mom), and the French scenes are simply dull. When De France finally has a conversation with her boyfriend about her new interest in the afterlife, it seems like the sort of poorly suspended exchange one would have in a dorm hallway with a near stranger after you'd both had a few shots. And any religious implications the story might have are weakly sloughed off in London by having the boy, hungry for answers, view a few brief, extra-phony You Tube clips of religious leaders spewing bromides about the subject. And that's all the insight, or pretense to such, that we get. Look, I'm not searching for answers here--none of us know anything--but at least give me something to chew on other than this blah story. For instance, no one--no matter how well-educated they might be, like the radiant Marthe Keller, who pops up as a doctor--even dawns on the fact that the "light" we see streaming as we die might be our brain cells shutting down one by one.
Peter Morgan, the writer of The Queen and Frost/Nixon, apparently shelved this script for a while and dusted it off for Eastwood (who apparently shot the unpolished version). It should have stayed shelved. The dialogue often goony ("Hey, I recognize you. You're that psychic"), and this subject, which has historically gotten little screen time, is lazily played with not much at stake. Though the film looks slick (you could recognize Eastwood's darkness-tinged photography easily, without even knowing it was a Eastwood film), it sounds horrendous (Eastwood's piano and classical guitar scores are getting to be a cliche, and I hated the Dead Zone whumps that rang out as Damon grabbed somebody's hands). Particularly irksome are the CGI glimpses of the afterlife, which are as hokey, and not nearly as colorful, as one might imagine.
I love Eastwood's movies, and was expecting much from Hereafter. But, in the end, I found myself disappointed and embarrassed for it--embarrassed like one is watching a stand-up comic bomb onstage. Viewing it, I wished it was a quarter as good as another movie from 1980 called Resurrection. In that, Ellen Burstyn garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing an everywoman blessed with healing powers after almost crossing over into the light following a hairy car accident. Resurrection possesses everything this Hereafter lacks: opinions, laughs, seriousness, shocks, complications, near-tears, and perfectly fine analog-derived glimpses of the beyond.