"....Eastwood exploring the wilderness between being and nothingness..."

Eastwood's Look Behind the Great Veil

(102210) Hereafter is of those beautifully impossible words, a composite of contradictory terms, whose literal meaning is as elusive as the thing it represents. Hereafter, Clint Eastwood's film about facing death and finding life, is similarly elusive. Death is not an abstract concept. It is the punctuation mark at the end of a life sentence whose finality causes us to bubble-wrap it in the opposite of a creation myth. No one knows what happens after we die, but the belief that an afterlife exists is a solace to many.

The stories are told individually in parallel fashion, and the events that occur range from the spectacular to the mundane. Eastwood cuts from one to another in the fragmented style of, say, "Babel," before tying them in a slipknot of a resolution that will cause many to ask, "Is that all there is?" The answer, on first blush, is yes.

But "Hereafter," made in the ghostly image of the concept it explores, lingers after it's gone. It is less surprising that Eastwood, who just turned 80, wonders what if anything comes next, than that he remains so prolific an artist. Eastwood is less of a lion in winter than a creature of habit, prowling for ideas and creating films as wildly varied as "Changeling," "Gran Torino" and "Invictus." And this pursuit, and what little time he may have left to conduct it, gives "Hereafter" urgency and resonance. It is not his most accessible work; it has a literal and procedural quality that some will regard as ambiguous and meandering. But knowing that it is part of a continuum adds dimension and meaning.

This is Eastwood exploring the wilderness between being and nothingness, and reporting back with his findings. They are inconclusive. His gauzy limbo of an afterlife may be a nice place to visit, but you don't want to live there. And nothing much happens in the film, except traumatized people helping each other come to terms with whatever is haunting them.

Though the main characters of Clint Eastwood’s HEREAFTER have all been profoundly affected by their brushes with the afterlife, the film is about anything but death. Rather, it is how each of them copes here after the experiences that have altered their lives irrevocably. Screenwriter Peter Morgan skillfully weaves together three stories that move inevitably towards one another, resonating and reverberating back and forth, building almost imperceptibly to a conclusion that embraces a comforting sense of synchronicity lurking beneath a veneer of random events.

The film begins with an externalization of the unsettling, engulfing sense of the impermanence of life and the utter finality of death. In it Marie Lelay (Cecile de France), a rich and successful television journalist, is caught in an Indonesian tsunami. In a harrowing special effects sequence that mixes chaos and quiet, Marie is pulled along by the violent waves and knocked unconscious by the debris. This is when she experiences a vision of what she comes to understand as the afterlife. It’s not an understanding that convinces her producer, who is also her lover, that she is recovered enough to return to work. Her obsession begins to chip away at her, and by extension the life she has led until then.

In San Francisco, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) has tried for three years to put his ability to speak to the dead behind him, as well as any connection in this life beyond the one with his brother, Billy, (Jay Mohr). Preferring to work a forklift and live a life that isn’t about death, George succumbs to one last reading for a special client of his brother‘s. Billy chides him for ignoring his duty to help people through their grief, not understanding the toll their joint business took on George. Physical contact with another person is an instant connection to those who have died in that person’s life, no matter how unpleasant, yet George still craves the company of others, even if it‘s the formal setting of a cooking class with small talk and tomato sauce.

In London, 12-year-old Marcus is dealing with the accidental death of his twin brother, Jason, and the subsequent placement in a foster home by withdrawing from everyone. Kindly social workers, well-meaning foster parents barely register with him as he single-mindedly pursues every preternatural avenue available to him in a desperate attempt to contact Jason whose presence is palpable to him even though he is now ashes in an urn.

The story cuts back and forth between the three, but never quite leaving any of them behind. A discussion of a Sikh uprising during a news meeting Marie attends is followed by Jason’s perfunctory funeral, which is followed by one in which the deceased is a Sikh. George works at the C&H Sugar factory. In London, he stays as a hotel whose logo is C-H. There is the irony that George likes nothing better than to listen to audio books of Dickens being read aloud, while refusing to do readings for others, or profoundly regretting the one he does for a new acquaintance (Bryce Dallas Howard, fragile and beautiful as a porcelain doll). There is more than just an irony, but also a sense of inevitability that when he first sees Marie, she is reading aloud during a business trip to London.

Brilliant light illuminates as much as it throws into shadow. Simple but profound music, composed by Eastwood, provides a sweetly melancholy descant to the desperate loneliness of these people’s lives. Throughout, with the spare quality that is trademark Eastwood, the mood is rich in profound emotion, the silences provided by measured dialogue, provides the space for the entire canvas of human emotions to appear. Performances are deceptively quiet, Damon as the everyman with a gift he can’t fathom. Lelay strong yet vulnerable when her world falls apart. Especially the McLaren twins, who each play Marcus in turn. As they sit facing each other while their drug-addicted mother stumbles into their flat and then drags herself up the stairs, the mirror images of their faces tell the story of their lives to that point without a word.

There is a Buddhist sense of compassion for these lost souls, and the ones that surround them, balanced with the longing of each character’s need to connect to the living and the dead. Yet the film as a whole is one of intensity and passion that is subsumed by the unknowns in this life and the next.

HEREAFTER is about faith, but not religion. That point is made without equivocation by the hospice administrator (Marthe Keller) Marie consults for answers. An avowed atheist, she has nonetheless followed with an open mind the evidence collected from those who have, she believes, glimpsed the other side. It proposes a fierce universe, but one where things happen for a reason, and in this it is as profoundly comforting as it is overwhelmingly lyrical.

Directed by:    Clint Eastwood
Written by:    Screenplay by Peter Morgan
Starring:    Matt Damon, Cécile De France, Jay Mohr
Released:    10/15/10 (USA)
Length:    126 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements
 including disturbing disaster and accident
 images and brief strong language

HEREAFTER © 2010 Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution
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