Monday, November 15, 2010

"Hereafter" Honestly Moved Me: A Film Review

Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" treads a delicate line.  It's slow-paced and reflective, it juggles three stories that converge very late in the film, and it's theme is about how we perceive death.  Yet the film is done with such confidence in the material, and treated with just the right touches of sensitivity and objectivity, that it is mesmerizing, visually splendid, and honestly moving.  I really liked it.

Matt Damon's character (George) is smart and lonely. He has psychic ability, so that by grasping the hands of  willing subjects, he can connect with their deceased friends and relatives, and relay messages from the beyond. His brother (Jay Mohr--when did he turn into Jim Belushi?) wants to exploit  George's "gift" for profit, while George wants to leave behind this "burden" which is the reason for his solitude. 

Marie (Cecile de France),  a French journalist and reporter, suffers a near-death during a tsunami, and becomes obsessed with her experience. After receiving a concussion from being swept away by the massive wave, she "sees" visions of lights and human figures, similar to George's "readings".   

Meanwhile, Marcus, a London lad (Frankie and George McLaren) with a drug-addicted mother, loses his twin brother Jason in a shocking street accident, and cannot accept the tragedy.  He embarks on an odyssey to find someone who can communicate with Jason and falls prey to charlatans.

In building these stories about the desperation and loneliness of these survivors, Eastwood and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan, must incorporate supernatural elements into a basically realistic and poetic rumination on death and survival, and keep it believable.  The simplicity of the filmmaking, and the intimacy between characters, allow them to pull this off and draw us in.

Regarding Eastwood's directorial efforts, I am usually hit or miss.  I hated "Unforgiven" and felt "Million Dollar Baby" was manipulative; yet I enjoyed "Bridges of Madison County", feeling it was authentic in atmosphere and emotion.  I guess I appreciate the sentimental Eastwood more than the darker one.  "Hereafter" is both dark and romantic, and is a brilliant directorial effort.  I was glad to see Eastwood stretch his boundaries, to tell a global story with such a sense of beauty, without bloating it.

I will remember the film for a number of compelling scenes from all three of the stories (Damon's segments are most amazing), and for the feelings of melancholy and hope the film left me with at the end.

The tsunami early in the film is an example of movie special effects at their finest.  Not only is the scene shot and edited beautifully, but the effects are clearly meant to serve the story and support a greater theme. The scene works both as spectacle and as material for contemplation.  It is a thrilling segment.

Damon is natural and believable as a man of surprising contradictions (he escapes to a blue-collar existence but indulges in his passion for Dickens) who has a "sixth sense", if you will, but is frequently shown attending to his other senses, like hearing, and taste. 

George listens to audio books, and joins an Italian cooking class.  There, he partners with an infatuated young woman  named Melanie (a wonderful Bryce Dallas Howard), who falls for him. She develops second thoughts after she urges him to do a "reading", in which he learns a painful secret about her past. 

The depiction of their budding romance includes a remarkable sequence during their class, as they take turns blindfolding each other for an exercise in guessing the foods that they feed one another, to discern the flavors and colors.  The instructor plays a beautiful opera in the background, to enhance the sensual experience, as George and Melanie quietly get to know each other.  Their subsequent break puts in motion the action that will eventually draw George into the lives of Marie and Marcus.

Little Marcus is placed in a foster home until his mother responds to treatment, for her addiction and her grief.  He finds a picture of Damon on the internet as he searches for ways to cope with his brother's absence, seeking advice from "spiritualists" and other experts. 

Marie, who enjoyed a position of fulfillment and fame as a reporter, turns her attention to a research book about the moment of death shared by those who survived the experience.  She loses her job, her fame, and her lover, but completes the work that is her passion, and in a nice turn of events, is approached by a publisher. Camille de France is particularly good here, forceful and natural as Marion Cotillard, and as down-to-earth as Juliette Binoche.

In one of the script's contrivances, George, Marcus and Marie find themselves at the same London Book Fair.  They are there for different reasons, and the plot strains to create connections between them.  But as the characters come to terms with their experiences with death, the coincidences slide into place, and we accept them.  For some viewers, the conclusion may feel too tidy, too forgiving of the real pain and horror of death and survival.  For me, the fairly upbeat resolution of each story preserved some mystery and wonder, and gave pause to consider life in a new way, removed from the constant fear of what death will be.

I read a critic's rave on a poster from another film currently in release, that said it made one glad to be alive.  I have not seen that film but I believe it will become a huge hit, because millions of viewers want a barrage of movement and images (to say nothing of the sight of  a man cutting off his own arm).  "Hereafter" will not appeal to that kinetic crowd, and thus will suffer the fate of most art film distributed in the States.  But I urge viewers to give it a chance. I can't assume it will make one glad to be alive, but it may at least provide a feeling of hope of living in less fear of death's unknown.


  1. I'm interested in seeing this. Thanks for the review!

  2. I'd like to see this film also. I thought "Gran Torino" was going to suck but turned out to be a really good film so I'm hoping this will too. Your right about it being a financial success here. People want action and CG effects now in movies they see.

  3. Great review Tom! I liked this film a lot, too. With "Hereafter", Eastwood resists the temptation to create a trite film about death, dying and exploring the great beyond. Instead, the film is poignant and provocative. it really has a European sensibility and that appealed to me -- rather than trying to force feed me special effects and a bland story (like so many American films do). I also loved the blindfolding scene with the taste testing. Very sensual!

  4. Thank you all for checking in. Eric, I would love to read your review when you do see this. Stan...welcome back, I have missed you! And Mark, I appreciate you for your support of all my writing efforts.