In his 2000 Space Cowboys, Eastwood took to outer space – but with a roundtrip ticket. Here, notes Kimberly Gadette, his oft-quoted "make my day" turns into endless night as he explores the great beyond, beyond the wild blue yonder.
With stellar acting, music and cinematography, and the collaborative writing/directing dream team of Clint Eastwood and Peter Morgan, why isn't Hereafter out of this world?
Only heaven knows.
But let's explore the void anyway. Three characters wander around different parts of the globe: one's a retired psychic in San Francisco (Matt Damon's George), trying to escape his prior career, saying "A life that's all about death is no life at all." One's a beautiful French news anchor (Cécile de France's Marie) who momentarily drowns in a tsunami that roars through an Indonesian beach town, only to come back to life haunted by visions from another world. And the third is a London school boy (Frankie and George McLaren's Marcus), the grieving half of a twinset, determined to reconnect with his recently deceased brother. Though their motives vary, all three characters are stuck in a limbo between the here and now ... and the yawning hereafter.
Even more surprising than octogenarian Eastwood's choosing, at this late date, to do a first exploration of the other side of mortality, is the fact that brilliant screenwriter Morgan delivers a rambling mess of a plot, his usual concise craft having slid into a sloppy tour of three disparate lives. In one scene, social workers separate Marcus from his heroin-addicted mother, and the boy bids her a tearful goodbye. Which is followed by another scene in the street where he bids her a second tearful goodbye. The language is almost identical and no, this isn't done for some eerie, two-twinned effect.
Morgan's treatment of the subject matter is also puzzling. As expressed by a doctor (Marthe Keller) and a publisher, the script addresses the supposed unbridled prejudice that is hurled at those brave enough to confess their brief trips to an afterworld during the time when they've momentarily died. It's as if we were smack dab in the Middle Ages, with no one daring to breathe a word about seeing a light, feeling a sense of well-being, visiting a world beyond our own. Seriously? Turn on a talk show, leaf through a tabloid. The cinema itself has examined the concept of crossing over for close to a century – or, at the very least, since the Leslie Howard/Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. 1930 film of Outward Bound.
Perhaps the script itself was waylaid by a trip to the cosmos. After nearly two hours of a set-up consisting of frequent switches between the characters' individual story arcs, they finally, thankfully meet. But the eventual denouement devolves into a chaste Hollywood ending that all but negates their journeys. In other words ... what's the point?
But if you can reconcile yourself to enjoying the journey for its own sake, there are cinematic treasures along the way. The opening tsunami scene is breathtaking, rivaling the best of the CGI effects movies. Eastwood and his cinematographer (longtime collaborator Tom Stern) shoot the flooding water frequently at eye level, resulting in a shocking immediacy. Framed shots of characters alone, or peering into mirrors replete with imagined embedded visages, or simply dining together at restaurants are poetry in and of themselves. The music, a melding of Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto with Eastwood's own compositions, is elegant and understated, underscoring rather than overpowering the moments.
As the soulful psychic, Damon gives one of his strongest performances in recent memory, a solitary figure eating his meals alone in half-lit apartments. His deep interior grief is countered with a rare sweetness. When he meets a potential love interest in Bryce Dallas Howard's outwardly giggly Melanie, only to experience one more disappointment, his pain is palpable. Howard is equally stunning – when her cheery survivor's mask is suddenly ripped away, the actress' face physically changes before our eyes.
Another strong performance comes from Cesar award-winning Belgian actress Cécile de France, playing a supposedly sophisticated woman who puts her trust in those around her a little too much. As for the 12-year-old McLaren twins, in this, their feature film debut, they are perfectly cast as the sad, sometimes belligerent, wiseacres whose every emotion flickers across their faces.
Oh for a smarter story, with a brisker pace, to support such excellent talents. But it just may be good enough for Clint. The 80-year-old Eastwood, in such august company as fellow auteurs Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Alain Resnais and Martin Scorsese, is so far along his career path that whatever urgency he may have experienced as a younger director, burning to make a splash, has probably come and gone ... leaving him to do exactly what he chooses. And if we aren't as laudatory as we've been in the past, he may just dismiss us with one of those iconic squints.
At least we still get to experience the good, the bad and, if not the ugly, then the so-so.
Rating on a scale of 5 mystical rivers: 2.5
Release date: US: 22 October 2010; UK: 28 January 2011
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Peter Morgan
Cast: Matt Damon, Cécile de France, Jay Mohr, Bryce Dallas Howard, Frankie and George McLaren, Marthe Keller, Thierry Neuvic, Derek Jacobi
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = TBD
Running time: 129 minutes