Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter closes the 48th New York Film Festival with three screenings on Sunday evening. Warner Brothers releases it theatrically next Friday, October 15.
Eastwood’s latest, an exercise in jet-setting thanatology, is as mammoth in scope as Mammoth, as high-minded as Babel, as wrecked as Crash. It’s a globally conscious film about death and the lives left behind—whether it’s white people in America, white people in England or white people in France, everyone is touched by death, struggling to cope with Loss and all it entails. The movie opens somewhere near the Indian Ocean, presumably, as it’s only a few minutes past the gray-tone Warner Brothers logo—gray is the color of ghosts!—when we’re already underwater, the latest victims of the 2004 tsunami and all the mawkish exploitation that comes with it. Before the movie ends, we will have lived through the 7/7 terror attacks on the London subway, as well—after all, how could you make a 21st Century movie obsessed with Death and not include a few of its greatest hits?
Cécile De France plays Marie, a French news anchor and Blackberry model who survives the killer wave, jolting out of a near-death experience with a newfound sense of the afterlife that her coldly cynical colleagues dismiss. Marcus, an English pre-teen, loses his twin brother in a car accident and misses him terribly. (Twins Frankie and George McLaren take turns playing either brother.) Matt Damon plays George, a real-deal psychic who more than once insists “it’s not a gift—it’s a curse!” because, like X-Men’s Rogue, he can’t touch anyone, at least not without getting a glimpse of their recently departed loved ones, hovering in the hereafter.
Eastwood shoots that afterlife through the clichés of alien abduction: it’s a bluish netherworld, occupied by shadows, backlit so that their obscure figures seem to radiate. These are the most prominent but far from the last clichés Eastwood and screenwriter Peter Morgan employ. Their story is too expansive for the time they have to tell it—there are three intersecting plots that would each need their own movie, maybe an HBO season. To make them move quickly enough so they can be intertwined, Morgan cuts corners, which Eastwood then sands down: know how Marie lives in Paris? There’s the Eiffel Tower! Know how George lives in San Francisco? There’s a neon sign that says “Port of San Francisco”! (For more fun with places: George likes to listen to Dickens as read by Derek Jacobi; after every time he does so, Eastwood cuts to the film’s London storyline, which includes an establishing shot of London Bridge.) This is Oscarbaiting at its worst: moviemaking without attention to detail, just with big melodramatic strokes, manipulative plotting and side-splitting dialogue: when Marie asks her lover about life after death, he suggests that if there were such a thing, science would surely have proven it by now.
Hereafter is proselytizing, a hyper-personal and thus super-embarrassing statement from Morgan, obviously borne from personal experience, meant to “blow the lid off a conspiracy of silence” about life after death—told not to bring him money, fame or respect, but because he has no choice but to tell this truth, meaningful above all other meanings. Eastwood surely chose to direct because he could sympathize: he’s an old man, and its message of meaning amid ostensible chaos is mollifying. It’s not this message I mock but the smug earnestness with which it’s told. The filmmakers acknowledge that, when it comes to mediums, there are plenty of suckers, shysters and pseudoscientists who offer silly, unsatisfying, desperation-exploiting answers to life’s complex and unresolved questions. The film’s crime is not to notice that it belongs chiefly among them.