Starring: Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Next to “what is the meaning of life”, the most-asked philosophical/existential question is probably “what happens after life?” This is an idea that has been explored on screen and has been a fixation of mass media for the longest time. After geriatric astronauts, boxers, chasing people off his lawn with a shotgun, and a certain South-African rugby team, director Clint Eastwood turns his attention to this very question.
The film features three simultaneous subplots. We have reluctant former professional psychic George Lonegan (Damon), French author-journalist Marie Lelay (de France) and twin British boys Marcus (Frankie McLaren) and Jason (George McLaren). They each have struggles that stem from an experience of the afterlife in one form or another.
George is content working a blue-collar job as a forklift driver, as he attempts to shake off the emotional torment of conducting psychic readings and helping clients talk to their deceased love ones, even as his brother Billy (Jay Mohr) insists that George should continue to make money using his “gift”.
While on assignment in Thailand, Marie is caught in the middle of a violent tsunami, and is briefly on the receiving end of a near-death experience. Back in Paris, she has trouble at work as a television interview program host, and decides to investigate the phenomenon of near-death experiences, writing a book about it.
Marcus and Jason stick by their alcoholic, heroin-addicted mother Jackie (Lyndsey Marshal) – the slightly older Jason chatty, cheerful and always looking out for Marcus. Suddenly, Marcus is forced to deal with a tragic and startling loss, separated from her mother as she is sent for rehabilitation, and this time without Jason to count on as big brother.
For a film focusing on the spirit realm, Hereafter is decidedly down to earth, and it works. The characters are all regular people and are immediately relatable. A big problem with a lot of supernatural dramas is that they often provide little elements from real life for their audience to cling to. That is not in short supply here – the factory worker, schoolboy and journalist very real and very vulnerable.
Clint Eastwood is recognised as a smart director, and that is on show here. He walks right up to a cliché, and then carefully takes two steps back. Many elements and character traits are comfortably familiar but never feel contrived or forced. This is also to writer Peter Morgan’s credit, balancing all the right ingredients.
However, the main issue with the film is its fragmented nature. Eastwood tries almost too hard to give each of the three subplots equal screen time, and as the movie hits the halfway mark and is neck-deep in the story, it is easy to lose track of the plot and perhaps even lose touch with the individual characters.
It is a good thing then that the actors do a mighty fine job holding it all together. Matt Damon is brilliant as the anchor character of the film. His George is unflinchingly real and workman-like, first subtly likeable as an everyman protagonist and second, convincing as a man who really can talk to the dead. We get to see just how much his past as a professional psychic interferes in his everyday life, right down to a potential relationship with the nice fellow student at a cooking class and the new girl in town, Melanie (Bryce Dallas-Howard) – and also glimpse his love for Charles Dickens audio books.
Cecile de France is also very good – for Western audiences most familiar with her role in Around the World in Eighty Days, seeing de France at her dramatic best is a welcome treat. A good part of her scenes are in French, effectively removing any problems she may have language-wise. Her character behaves just as a real woman might after a traumatic incident, and that instinctive spark of a journalist and writer makes the character fresh and quite interesting. As Marie learns more of the little-known realities of near-death experiences, we learn more about her.
Oftentimes, kid actors can make or break a film regardless of their heavyweight, grown-up co-stars. Eastwood cast the real-life twins and first-time actors because he “didn’t want child actors who’d been over-instructed in child acting 101”. George is a better actor than Frankie, but Frankie’s character Marcus is the one who gets more screen time. Frankie seems stiff at times, but it does fit the personality of the shy and introspective Marcus quite well.
Tonally, the film is sure-footed and consistent. The mise en scene is unflinchingly realistic and bleak; no effort is made to glamourise any of the locales (even including London and Paris), and it works. Eastwood delivers some gorgeous and cleverly-framed shots, but he is far from a flashy director, and is wisely hesitant to put a “stamp” all over the film.
The flashy special effects are mainly reserved for the frightening and intense tsunami scene that opens the film – it’s not as photo-realistic as audiences have come to expect, but it does the job and sets the movie up well. The film is leavened with a tiny sprinkling of humour – the sequence in which Marcus visits several amusingly incompetent “psychics” is sad but also darkly funny.
It feels very good to step into the theatre, sit down and watch an actual film. Not some crazy over-budgeted 3D extravaganza, nor a tiny pretentious arthouse flick – a good old-fashioned movie. Those have their place, but the place for films like Hereafter seems to be getting smaller and smaller, and that’s why it’s nice to see movies like that getting made. It’s thoughtful, meditative, meandering tone may not sit well with restless moviegoers, but where it matters – on an emotional level – Hereafter certainly resonates.