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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.

In Hereafter, to his credit, Eastwood gets outside this box a little. The pulse-accelerating tsunami is an atypical concession to cinematic spectacle, and the substance of the film — psychic connections, near-death experiences, and the afterlife — represents a sharp departure from the blue-collar realism that he usually favors.

Unfortunately, these experiments have led into an artistic cul-de-sac. Meandering and tedious, Hereafter is a suspense-free ghost story, a message movie with no message, and a mawkish, pandering exercise that believes itself to be resolutely unsentimental. The supernatural has never been so boring as when embalmed by Eastwood’s self-serious, soporific style.

The film features three globe-spanning plotlines, which take an eternity to intersect. In the first, a French news anchor named Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) gets swept up in the South Asian tidal wave, loses consciousness underwater, and finds herself on a spectral plain, surrounded by ghostly figures, facing a pulsing light. Once resuscitated, she finds it difficult to resume her broadcasting career, and instead — to the despair of her producer boyfriend, and the disappointment of her publishers — begins researching a book on near-death experiences and the afterlife.

Meanwhile, in London, twin brothers Jason and Marcus (George and Frankie McLaren) live with their junkie mother, relying on their wits and each other until Jason gets killed by a passing truck. Left alone and then flung into foster care, Marcus becomes obsessed with the afterlife, trying psychic after psychic (all of whom turn out to be frauds) in the hopes of piercing mortality’s veil and reconnecting with his twin.

Finally, in San Francisco, a legitimate psychic named George (Matt Damon) is trying to escape his gift, which puts him into contact with the deceased relatives of almost anyone he touches. (He sees the same vista as LeLay, the same figures, and the same light.) George used to make money off his visions, and his brother (Jay Mohr, a sleaze in a hairpiece) wants him to get back to work as a professional medium. But the psychic craves normalcy, not money. He’s working at a factory and taking cooking classes at night, where he meets cute with a potential girlfriend (a fluttery Bryce Dallas Howard) and then has to decide how much to tell her about his unusual talent.

There really isn’t much more to the movie than these plot sketches — no shocking revelations, no unexpected twists, and only the most cursory attempt at intertwining the three narrative threads. At times, Hereafter seems to be building toward a climactic encounter with the numinous; at times, it seems to want to be a supernatural version of Oliver Stone’s JFK, unraveling a global conspiracy to deny the existence of the afterlife. But neither road gets taken. The dead offer comforting banalities (an apology here, a pep talk there) without giving up their secrets, the details of LeLay’s exposé of afterlife denialism are left to the audience’s imagination, and at the end of the movie we’re no wiser about the next world than in the muddled moments after her resuscitation.

Hereafter takes occasional swipes at organized religion, and it’s clear that Eastwood considers his comforting ghosts and pulsing light to be the artistically serious way to portray the afterlife, as opposed to the too-specific images and dogmas that Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism offer up. In fact, the reverse is true: Art thrives on specificity and detail, and the vaguer and more Beyond-Our-Comprehension a story’s portrait of the afterlife, the harder it is to care about what happens — on earth as well as in heaven. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father comes back from purgatory, making demands instead of offering apologies, everybody quickly understands the stakes. When the ghosts in Hereafter come back from God-knows-where, speaking the language of therapy and reassurance, it’s hard to know why we should give a damn.

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