Since man was first able to contemplate his existence, since he was first able to realize that, yes, he was going to die, he’s been wondering just what it is that happens after death. Is there some form of life beyond the veil of death or, to paraphrase a character from Clint Eastwood’s latest film Hereafter, do the lights just go off? Through the at first disparate stories of the three main characters, Hereafter explores both the idea of death and the different perceptions that we can hold of this still unknown part of life.
The film opens in Thailand, where a vacationing French reporter, Marie (played by Cécile de France) leaves the bed of her boss/lover for a last visit to the local marketplace. While there, the Indian Ocean tsunami strikes. Marie is pulled from the water and, before she is resuscitated, has a vision of human forms in a world of light.
In England, 12-year-old twins Marcus and Jason, played by first time actors Frankie and George McLaren, are inseparable in the face of Child Protective Services attempts to determine if their mother Jackie, an alcoholic and a junkie, is able to properly care for the boys. In a freak accident, Jason is killed and Marcus is removed to foster care.
A San Francisco man, George Lonnegan (played by Matt Damon), goes about his lonely life as a factory worker as his brother tries to utilize George’s true psychic abilities for profit. George resists at every turn, at one point saying that a life built around death is no life at all. To George, his powers, the result of a childhood illness, are more a curse than a gift as they undercut any attempt George may have at a normal life, a notion shown by a repeated image of George watching the world from the safety of a window.
This is not the sort of film Eastwood, an unabashed icon of Hollywood, is known for, but there are parallels to his previous work. The film is slow and methodical, calling to mind his most recent film, Gran Torino, but instead focusing on the violence Eastwood’s canon is generally known for, he takes the time to ask questions that there are no easy answers for.
In this film, there is no doubt that the afterlife or George’s powers are real, but that doesn’t mean there is any comprehension on our part what that means. Marie strives to understand what it was that she experienced as the repercussions begin to disturb her personal and professional life. She visits a Swiss hospice doctor who provides her with evidence for life after death, through the experiences of many of her patients, that inspires Marie to write a book on the perceived conspiracy against the idea of the hereafter. Marcus was always dependent on Jason in life and is lost without him and his mother. He visits numerous people who claim to be able to speak with the dead and at every turn he is left with a growing disappointment. George is again left with the realization that he can’t be normal or happy with his gifts.
Inspired by the slow, meditative films of the European arthouses, Eastwood weaves these stories together until the three characters finally come together. Though far from perfect, the film doesn’t pretend to offer answers to questions mankind has spent millennia arguing about, and that itself could be a problem for many viewers. Technically, the film is great. Every scene is wonderfully shot with the expertise you can expect from a director like Eastwood, and for the most part the actors all do their jobs admirably. Frankie and George McLaren, both brand new to the acting game, do a good job for the most part, but certain lines of dialogue ring hollow, a problem that plagues several scenes throughout the movie. If there was to be a weak link in this film, it would have to be the script itself, which can turn the characters into one-dimensional stereotypes. With the capable directing and acting, such problems don’t come up too often, which sadly makes them all the more noticeable when they do.