Hereafter is a movie unlike any I have seen in a while. With a title like that and a few big names attached to it (Damon, Eastwood, Spielberg), one would think that they were about to see a film with action, suspense, and some killer (no pun intended) storytelling. What we get instead is an insightful film that is just intriguing enough to disappoint the average moviegoer.
Clint Eastwood has made a name for himself while avoiding the science-fiction and fantasy genres (except for a couple of techno-thrillers like Space Cowboys and Firefox). Now as an established director, he has decided to make the leap into posthumous fantasy with a script by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland). Unfortunately for the audience, Hereafter plays it safe as the status quo for the film is set early on: that the dead should be left alone and the living should move-on. Morgan and Eastwood make that unapologetically clear.
Hereafter follows the stories of three main characters that, needless to say, all end up intertwining with each other at the end. The first story is about Marie (Cecile De France), a french reporter who nearly drowns in a Southeast Asian tsunami. When she returns to work, her life is drastically changed because of her relentless fascination with what she saw on the ‘other side.’ While she takes some time off to recover, we see that as in death, Marie is replaced at her job and in her personal relationship by someone young and new – that life has moved on without her. In her new-found free time, she ventures into investigating and writing a book about the afterlife and the conspiracies that keep it a hushed scientific topic.
Then we meet George (Matt Damon), a retired psychic who is just trying to live a normal life. George sees his ability as a ‘curse’ that prevents him from being normal. He sees a glimpse of possible normality when he finds interest in a young woman, but once she realizes his secret, her curiosity won’t let her back down from wanting a reading from him. He tries to dissuade her, telling her that sometimes it’s better not to know so much about another person; that there are some things that people should hold back. She won’t hear it, and later regrets her decision as we all find out some devastating revelations from a dead relative. This drives home the point Eastwood is making about how dwelling on the dead can be harmful.
Our final lead character is a young British boy named Marcus who’s twin brother Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) is accidentally killed. He already leads a hard life with an addict for a mother and social services breathing down their necks. His attachment to his brother keeps him from moving-on, and he spends lots of time in search of a real psychic. He meets with many people claiming to have knowledge of the afterlife (who turn out to be frauds), and is disheartened about his quest – until he reads about George on his website from his early days as a professional psychic.
Falling in suit with Hereafter‘s status quo, all of the characters are devastatingly lonely due to their inability to let go of their experiences with death and the afterlife. Only at the very end of the film are we given a hint of their transition to a better way of life as their paths begin to cross. While much of the 2 hours of runtime was dedicated to building the characters and creating atmosphere, there was a definite lack of emotional connection to them. Whether this was because most of the time we are sitting on the edge of our seats hoping that Eastwood will delve more into the the movie’s namesake I can’t be certain. But just as the paths of our characters meet, the film is abruptly over. I say “abruptly” because that is the first time the script gets really interesting. After such a long stretch of minimally intriguing storyline, I fear many viewers will have lost interest enough to care about the ‘possibilities that could be’ in the unsatisfying conclusion.
There are some aspects of Hereafter that must be celebrated, like the fact that it is an exceptionally well-made movie overall, and how the acting was spot-on across the board. Damon is the obvious choice for some to consider the “lead,” but De France and the McLaren boys did a great job of holding their own. Another highlight was the brilliant opening scene where Marie gets swept up in the tidal wave. The realism was staggering, and when she is caught underwater and facing death, the CGI created an effect that was both eerie and beautiful. Unfortunately for a movie about the afterlife, that’s where the impressive CGI ended. The murky images we are shown of the hereafter are of shadowy figures standing around in a sea of white foggy light. We are graced with very few glimpses of this world, and then forced to imagine the rest based on a couple of sentences of dialog from Damon. This again sits with the safe theme of ‘not dwelling on the dead’ that Eastwood and Morgan strictly stand by from the beginning.
Ultimately, Hereafter is a film that can be encompassed by the idea that “a life all about death is no life at all.” Some may find this film thought provoking and be intrigued by the reasons why people can’t let go of the deceased. I fear that most will see it as an unfulfilled promise of a story about the afterlife, and be disappointed by instead receiving a 2 hour lesson in moving-on.
I give Hereafter 3 “Damon’s Meet Joe Black‘s” out of 5.