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A Matter of Death: "Hereafter"

Matt Damon in Hereafter.

The standard is the telephone book. When we want to say that we have consistently enjoyed an artist’s work over the years, we say that we would pay to see/hear him/her read/sing/act/direct the telephone book.

(Maybe I’m especially adventurous, but I would go to see anyone adapt the phone book, out of simple curiosity about what could be done with a text so bursting with characters yet lacking in narrative.)

But you get the idea. A seasoned artist can do wonders with raw material no matter how unlikely. Which may be the case with Hereafter, the new film directed by Clint Eastwood.

First off, I think we can now agree that the phrase “the Clint Eastwood mold” no longer has any meaning. For the past 20 years, reviews of most of his films have used it in the negative, to note that the new work breaks the “Eastwood mold,” referring to his days as a star and director of Western and action films. But of the 19 films he has directed since his Charlie Parker biopic Bird, only a small handful fall into that category. To the extent that you can now talk about an Eastwood style, it means unhurried storytelling, a trust in performance over editing, and an interest in characters over plot. Guns? Look somewhere else.

So to say that Hereafter is unlike anything else Eastwood has previously tackled is to say that it’s in keeping with his body of work over the past decade, in that he seems to be attracted to projects at least partially because they offer new challenges.

Hereafter follows three characters, all touched by death and the question of whether there is an afterlife. A vacationing French journalist (Cécile de France) has a near-death experience during the 2004 Pacific tsunami. In London, a young schoolboy suffers the death of his twin brother. And in San Francisco, a psychic (Matt Damon) tries to escape what he considers the curse of being able to facilitate communication between the living and their dead loved ones.

What Hereafter is not, I think, is Eastwood’s own reflection on mortality. True, he has recently reached the age of 80, a point at which many of us can be expected to start looking toward the end and wondering what if anything is beyond. He probably has some of those thoughts, but I doubt he’s consumed by them. At a recent New York Film Festival he said that he plans to follow in the footsteps of Portuguese director Manoel de Olviera, who turns 102 next month and is still making films.

Nor is it a religious film, in either the traditional or New Age sense. The characters in the film are all obsessed with the idea that there is life after death, the boy because he so badly wants it to be true, the adults because they feel they have touched it. It’s not hard to explain away their evidence if we want, but who could fail to identify with the impulse to question the boundaries of life?

For what it is, Hereafter is, like all Eastwood films, exquisitely crafted, so much so that it is rewarding on that level alone. He knows how to give actors what they need, and how to capture what they give. And he knows how to assemble technicians able to put a coherent vision on screen. The film opens with a computer-generated recreation of the tsunami (or at least one corner of it) that is more ambitious than most younger filmmakers with no previous experience in that kind of spectacle would tackle.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that Hereafter is wanting on a story level. The script was written by Peter Morgan, famous for his British docudramas (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Special Relationship, The Damned United, etc.). Morgan has said in interviews that he began this script not knowing where it was going, put it away, went back to it a few years later. Not certain what he had, he sent it to his agent for notes. It wound up with Steven Spielberg, who passed it on to Eastwood, who liked it. Expecting the beginning of a process in which he and the director would polish the script into final form, Morgan was surprised to learn that Eastwood (who likes to work fast) had begun production with the original script.

So if you find the film’s ending perfunctory and unsatisfying, don’t blame the writer. What Morgan had was certainly strong enough to get the interest it did, but why Eastwood didn’t see that it needed a little more work I can’t imagine. Story isn’t everything, and I was happy to spend two hours with intelligent actors portraying sympathetic characters struggling with difficult situations. If you require a tidy ending that wraps up all the loose ends, well, there are lots of other movies to see.

Watch the trailer for Hereafter

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