Death is an element of most stories. After all, the stakes have to be high if you are showing one small intense slice of life, which is all storytelling is. It has been a strong presence in Clint Eastwood’s recent work.  Maybe not so much in Invictus, but certainly in Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, and of course in the twin Iwo Jima films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Of course there is a distinction to be made between a story that has death as a possibility and one in which death serves as its centerpiece or main theme. The latter tend to be more meditative.

Hereafter is definitely a film about death and the mystery of what comes after. It is one of those films with three intertwining plots like Babel. First we have Marie Lelay, played by Cecile De France, a French television journalist who is in some tropical country (if they said what it was, I missed it) when a tsunami hits. She is caught in it and is rescued but not before being dead for a few minutes. Her hazy memories of the experience haunt her. She becomes obsessed, starts to write a book about it and loses her job.

In the second plot Matt Damon plays George Lonegan, genuine psychic who can talk with the dead. He used to make a pretty good living at it until he decided that he didn’t want the burden of knowing about other people’s secrets and tragedies. Now he works in a factory and takes cooking classes at night. Every once in a while someone finds him and hectors him into giving a reading. And he always regrets it. He lives alone. It’s hard to form a relationship with someone, when simply touching them means that their deceased loved ones will tell you all their secrets.

The third plot concerns Marcus, a twin, growing up in a rough area of London with a junkie mother. The role is played by real life twins Frankie and George McLaren.  His brother, who’s older by fifteen minutes is killed in an accident. This sends his family into a spiral as his mother is sent to rehab and he’s put into foster care. He becomes obsessed with finding a way to speak with his brother one last time.

With any multiple plot project like this, I imagine there are many structural issues that have to be ironed out to make it seamless. Peter Morgan, the screenwriter doesn’t quite make it work. George’s flirtation with Melanie, a woman he meets in his cooking class, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, demonstrates his difficulty with intimacy, but we already knew that from the dialog and from Matt Damon’s face, which communicated that information within seconds of first appearing on the screen. Also bringing a tsunami into the picture brings up resonances that distract from the story. When the plots intertwine at the denouement, it’s not a particularly clever ending; there are too many loose ends.

Plus Eastwood and Morgan don’t come up with anything really profound to say about death or the afterlife. In fact, what they come up with is standard new age nonsense.

And yet you don’t mind. Eastwood is such a skilled filmmaker at this point, he is able to overcome a mediocre script and make a watchable, if not great movie. The performances, cinematography and editing all make up for the script’s deficiencies.

Hereafter didn’t change my life, but it did entertain me for two hours.


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October 2010
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