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Film: Undiscovered Country

by Ross Douthat

A review of Hereafter.

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter begins with a tsunami and ends with a book signing. Aspiring storytellers, please take note: No matter what happens in the middle acts of your film, making the climax roughly four hundred thousand times less riveting than your opening sequence is a pretty good way to ensure that the audience walks out feeling disappointed.

Of course, Eastwood gave up on crowd-pleasing years ago. His late-career transformation from underrated actor-director to overpraised auteur has been achieved by cultivating a spartan aesthetic and a downbeat sensibility, both of which are rare enough in the modern movie business to be easily confused with art. Eastwood’s films are always handsome and always well-acted; they tell melodramatic stories in a restrained, unshowy style; and he keeps them coming at a steady enough clip that if the critics dislike one (as they did Changeling, two years back), there’s always another ready in the pipeline. But except for the first half of 2008’s Gran Torino, in which he had some fun with his own “do you feel lucky, punk?” image, I’m not sure that anyone actually enjoys them. When they’re supposed to be inspiring (Torino’s climax, or the whole of last year’s Mandela movie, Invictus), the uplift feels rote and heavy-handed. When they’re tragic (think Mystic River, or Million Dollar Baby), the misery often seems overdetermined, and a dank misanthropy creeps in around the edges.

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