Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Matt Damon, Cecile de France, George McLaren, Frankie McLaren
Review: 4 stars (of five)
The name of the game in Hereafter is restraint. You’ve got a movie about what lies beyond the grave that doesn’t answer the question, you’ve got the subtle, studied genius of Clint Eastwood in the director’s chair, and you’ve got Matt Damon, who’s the international model of reserved acting, at least at the box-office-star level.
The film posits, but not too aggressively, that we all go somewhere when we die, and then follows the lives of three people who have brushes with that next reality. Their reactions, varying by their individual experiences, are fear, obsession and depression, and each person’s tale unfolds in unrelated episodes, until the final act allows the stories to finally overlap. Matt Damon is literally unable to touch anyone in this life after his brush with the afterworld. TV journalist Cecile de France jeopardizes her career when her vision of a ghost-strewn tunnel of light becomes her obsession, and a young boy (played by twins Frankie and George McLaren) cannot escape the grief after a loved one dies.
The stories unfold slowly, jumping from San Francisco to Paris to London, and other than the common theme of “the hereafter,” don’t seem to relate at all. The actors are great, but only Cecile de France has a role with much emotional life on display. The film takes some patience, but with this cast and this director, it’s a worthwhile exercise.
It’s possible that part of the reason Hereafter‘s inarguable slowness, and its laid-back approach to bringing together three strands of story, worked for me is that it’s a Clint Eastwood movie. Not only does that mean the acting and direction are top-notch, that minute by minute you’re getting a master’s class in minimalist, intelligent storytelling, but also, it’s Clint goddamned Eastwood. (The British put “Sir” or “Dame” in front of your name if you’re really good at something. Americans stick a satisfying swear word in between.) If Clint goddamned Eastwood wants me to shut up and let him tell the story at his own goddamned pace, I’m kinda inclined to say, “Yes sir, Mr. Eastwood,” and sit the hell down. Your feelings in that regard may vary, but the mastery of execution part is inarguable.
(One paragraph with a mid-level spoiler, if you’re worried:)
Two moments in the film that particularly stuck with me involve a young boy who has just lost the brother that has always shared his bedroom. The kid, almost mute in shock, goes to bed that first night, with the bed on the other side of the room empty. He gets in bed, turns out the light, and in the darkness softly says good night to his absent brother, as he’d done all his life. It’s a devastatingly poignant moment, but it’s played in the dark, without a swell of orchestral music or closeup of a tear, lit to glisten perfectly, running down a cheek.
Eastwood constantly goes with the minimum to communicate with the audience, allowing viewers to experience the story rather than being manipulated into reactions, the way a more bombastic Hollywood flick might. He does some great work in the beginning moments, when his camera follows raging floodwaters in a way that perfectly communicates the danger and disorientation of such an experience.
If the filmmaker indulges himself anywhere, it’s at the end, when Matt Damon has a pure Hollywood moment. In reflection, though, while the moment—a vision shown to the audience to represent Damon’s hopes as he makes a fateful decision—is also the most concise way to communicate his feelings in the moment, and thus in perfect keeping with the film.
Ultimately, Hereafter is not about the hereafter. It’s about the here and now, about living in this world despite the knowledge and very real presence of death. It’s not a coincidence that both a tropical disaster and a terrorist attack are background plot details (such common occurrences in today’s world, alas) in a film about facing the inevitable unknown. It’s thoughtful, well-made, and wise in refusing to come to some massive, awe-inspiring message rather than a simple one about living.