Hereafter

Despite his advanced age (he turned 80 in May), Clint Eastwood is easily the most prolific and versatile director working in Hollywood today. Over the past five years, he has made seven films, each vastly different from the others in theme, strategy, and visual style. (See below).

Based on an original but flawed screenplay, “Hereafter” also marks a departure for the acclaimed writer Peter Morgan, best known until now for his political dramas (the Oscar nominated “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” and other biopics for British TV).

The most encouraging thing about Eastwood is that he continues to take risks and work with different kinds of texts and source materials. Case in point is his latest, the quiet, meditative “Hereafter,” a deliberately fractured, globe-trotting exploration of fate and mortality, life and death (or the afterlife.

“Hereafter” follows the new trend of storytelling, based on a multi-plot, multi-character and multi-perspective structure, seen in the work of several directors, such as the Mexican-born but Hollywood-based Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu (“Amores Perros,” and particularly the Oscar-nominated triptych “Babel,” both written by Guillermo Arriaga).

“Hereafter” appears to be too soft, in moments even too sentimental, dealing as it is with the richly complex, often ambiguous links between the present and the past, and connections between the living and their loved ones who have died.  Each of the film’s characters had suffered a major loss in an accident or catastrophe.

By today’s standards, “Hereafter” is slow-paced (as spiritual, contemplative tales often are), and the quality of the three stories is uneven, offering various degrees of emotional involvement and artistic execution’

The ensemble is headed by Matt Damon (who last starred in Eastwood’s “Invictus”), the gorgeous Belgian actress Cecile de France in her breakthrough Hollywood part (bound to become an international star), and Bryce Dallas Howard, who has never been so touching before. Swiss actress Marthe Keller, still beautiful at middle-age, appears in one sequence, and so does the renowned British actor Derek Jacobi, playing himself.

“Hereafter” world-premiered at the Toronto Film Fest (in the Special Presentations section) and will serve as the prestigious closing night of New York Film Fest, on October 10. Warner faces a tremendous marketing challenge in putting across this quiet, unusual film in late fall (October 22). Not particularly commercial, the movie should divide reviewers, though strong critical support is necessary for such artistic fare.

The film may elicit stronger support in Europe and other foreign countries. On many levels, “Hereafter,” whose story is mostly set in Europe (Paris and London), resembles a European art feature (also a novelty in Eastwood’s work, which is largely and uniquely American.

Morgan’s script sets in motion three parallel yet divergent narratives. In the first, which begins on a highly evocative note, a famous French TV journalist named Marie LeLay (Cecile de France) is vacationing in the tropics with her married lover-producer Didier (Thierry Neuvic), when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits the place.  Swept away by the ferocious tides, Marie blacks out after hitting her head and experiences a brief, otherworldly vision before regaining her consciousness.

Cut to San Francisco, where George Lonegan (Matt Damon, cast in a blue-collar part), a construction worker struggling with his psychic gifts, faces requests for sessions from various people hoping to communicate with their lost loved ones.

Crossing the pond back to London, the tale depicts young twin brothers Marcus and Jason (George and Frankie McLaren), who in order to avoid institutional social care, go out of their way to conceal familial problems, prime among which is their mother’s addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Later on, when Marie returns to Paris, she has trouble readjusting to her job after the trauma. Her producer-lover suggests that she take time off to write a book, but her writing veers off course as she begins to study scientists who research the afterlife.

For his part, facing tragic consequences, Marcus becomes dangerously haunted by various psychic phenomena. Meanwhile, George follows a more upbeat path by joining an Italian cooking class (taught by Steven R. Schirripa), where he encounters and falls for a foreigner girl named Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Eastwood lets each story develop in unhurried (occasionally boring) fashion, while making sure there is aomw menace and threat in the background. Known for his measured pacing, Eastwood takes its time in describing situations and events, such as a cooking class where the psychic meets a potential lover, or a London Underground sequence where an event unexpectedly rescues one brother.

Our expectations built up: Will the three yarns converge, and in what specific way. It turns out that Morgan is not particularly concerned with providing immediate or logical links among the segments. “Hereafter” is not the kind of film that would hold up to close narrative scrutiny, or dramatic logic. There may be too many coincidences, and perhaps too many disasters, in addition to tsunami, in the movie’s first, most overwhelming scene.

Several of the movie’s scenes are too sentimental (in a bad way, like “Bridges Over Madison County,” one of Eastwood’s weakest films as a director), but never crosses into bathos. In the hands of any other director, “Hereafter” could have easily been a schmaltzy, portentous and pretentious melodrama.

If the plot is at times too fragmented on the one hand and too overbearing on the other, the characters are not, and there’s always something interesting on screen. Eastwood’s approach is remarkably subdued, even tame, and decidedly unpretentious. There are pauses, allowing us to reflect during the screening (an unusual thing for most Hollywood movies). And a good deal is left to the subjective imagination of the viewers, who will be provoked and mays engage in debate with themselves and others after the picture.

Most of the flaws in “Hereafter” derive from Morgan’s screenplay, though one can tell that Eastwood, to, is not particularly interested in the subject, especially not in it spiritual elements. In moments, the narrative is too extreme, unbelievable, and certain scenes are borderline risible, teetering on the ridiculous and threatening to disintegrate the whole thing.

The acting in this picture is uneven.  In a peculiar interpretation, Matt Damon gives a straightforward, not particularly engaging performance.  He sort of reads his lines without investing them with emotion.  This may be Damon’s first weak performance, which is strange, considering that Eastwood claims he has waited for Damon to be available; the whole shooting schedule was changed because of Damon

A decidedly atypical movie, “Hereafter” came out of the studio system, often accused of producing trashy, homogenized features, and for that, both Eastwood and Warner should be commended–I just wish the film would have been more dramatically engaging and technically shapelier.

End Note

Since 2004, Eastwood has directed “Million Dollar Baby,” which won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, the back-to back WWII movies, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Gran Torino,” “Changeling,” and “Invictus.”

Cast

George Lonegan (Matt Damon)
Marie LeLay (Cecile de France)
Billy (Jay Mohr)
Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard)
Marcus/Jason (George McLaren, Frankie McLaren)
Didier (Thierry Neuvic)
Dr. Rousseau (Marthe Keller)

Credits

Warner release of a Malpaso, Kennedy/Marshall production.

Produced by Clint Eastwood, Kathleen Kennedy, Robert Lorenz.
Executive producers, Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Peter Morgan, Tim Moore.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Screenplay, Peter Morgan.
Camera, Tom Stern.
Editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach.
Music, Clint Eastwood.
Production designer, James J. Murakami; supervising art director, Patrick Sullivan; set decorator, Gary Fettis.
Costume designer, Deborah Hopper.
Sound, Walt Martin; supervising sound editors, Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff.
Visual effects supervisor, Michael Owens.
Stunt coordinators, Rob Inch, B.L. Richmond, Thom Williams.

Running time: 129 Minutes