NYFF 2010: Hereafter

10/08/2010 5:27 PM |

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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.

One Comment

  • Eastwood’s Hereafter is going to be a love it or hate it affair. It is remarkably different from anything he’s directed before and remarkably superior to previous, similar efforts from Inarritu, etc, to relate globally dispersed, yet ultimately intertwined character driven stories.

    I am someone who does not believe that there is such a thing as life after death. As skeptical as I am about it, I also know that I cannot possibly prove that there is no such thing. Hereafter didn’t change my mind about this one bit, but that didn’t stop me from deeply enjoying and appreciating the story that Eastwood and Morgan had to tell.

    I am also deeply annoyed by critics, who possessing not one iota of creative ability, always emphatically know better than screenwriters, directors and everyone else on the creative side of films.

    So much has been said about the leisurely and meandering pace of the film, which I find to be pointless observations. Many of these same reviewers completely failed to grasp that the astonishing, mostly first-person tsunami sequence was supposed to have happened in Thailand (not Maui, where the practicals were shot), based on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It’s equally clueless of these same commentators to characterize the terror elements of Hereafter as being “post-9/11,” when terrorist attacks against civilians have been going on, around the world, before and since 9/11. The terror incident portrayed in Hereafter is clearly based on the 2005 London Tube bombings, known over there as 7/7. No one, not even a ghost, predicted it. Finally, some of these same reviewers fault Matt Damon’s George Lonegan for not being a future seeing clairvoyant, when his one and only supernatural ability is limited to channeling the dead under very specific circumstances. For these impatient chroniclers, all of these details must have rushed by too slowly for them to have noticed at all. In this regard, Henry Stewart is not one among them, so I know that he was at least paying attention.

    The fundamental story revolves around three kinds of loss.

    Cecile De France’s silver-spooned French TV journalist Marie LeLay dies (skeptics would say she has a near-death, out-of-body experience) and then miraculously comes back to life when active efforts to revive her have failed. (Her would-be CPR givers failed to clear her blocked airways of water prior to all of their huffing and puffing.) Her experience of crossing over and back gradually comes to overthrow nearly everything in her previously self-assured and self-determined Parisian life.

    Damon’s Lonegan rightfully considers his ability to channel the dead as being a curse. There is nothing congenital about it. Modern medicine has boiled his condition down to a form of childhood surgical brain-injury induced schizophrenia, to be controlled through the use of powerful medications that render him feeling lifeless. Refusing to medicate, his unmuted “talent” results in his ongoing alienation from the rest of everyday humanity — that humanity having a high propensity for shooting messengers. In the meanwhile, he lives an economically precarious blue collar life in San Francisco (which is very possible via rent control) and listens to Charles Dickens audio books as a substitute for sleep. All of this is portrayed with deft understatement by Damon.

    Real-life identical twins George and Frankie McLaren portray twelve-minutes separated twins Jason and Marcus, who are engaged in a spirited battle to prevent London’s Child Services from taking them away from their beloved opiate addicted mother (Lyndsey Marshall). The younger Marcus, who has always deferred to his “older” brother, becomes a lost half-soul when Jason unexpectedly dies while returning from an hope filled errand that Marcus was initially asked to undertake for their mother. The same tragedy results in Marcus being placed in a foster home. So, he loses his mom, too. No matter how high functioning Marcus seems to be, he is deep in the grip of shock and grief.

    All of the other elements of Hereafter serve to underscore and develop each character’s profound sense of loss as well as their respective quests to fill their voids with meaningful answers.

    Bryce Dallas Howard delivers an inspired turn as Melanie, George’s night school cooking partner and potential romantic interest. Some reviewers have criticized Howard for overly hammy “bad acting,” when, in fact, she perfectly nails the part of a hypomanic speed-dater, rushing headlong into something she desires, but is too wounded by a traumatic past to be able to handle. It’s all seemingly unbelievable… until you’ve met people, in real-life, who are just like Melanie. As such, I think Howard’s turn was something courageous.

    The acting is so relaxed and natural you almost don’t realize that it’s a direct by product of Eastwood’s (mostly) one-take approach to film making. Every actor is delivering their A-game. No one is phoning anything in.

    Case in point, Damon’s performance as George Lonegan. Morgan and Eastwood show us a panoply of con artists posing as psychics in Hereafter. The audience is shown the blatant techniques of cold-reading, forceful suggestion (verbal hypnotism) and gaudy tech bamboozle that Marcus endures on his quest to somehow reconnect with Jason. In contrast, Damon’s Lonegan is extremely low key and very unassuming, which can be mistaken for the con artist’s matter-of-fact demeanor. George tells people to only answer yes/no to his questions, which causes every skeptic in the audience to anticipate that some form of fraud is about to be perpetrated, via wandering interrogation. Then George makes no effort to read the facial and body language of the person who is seeking contact with their lost loved one. George manages to ask direct, but not all knowing, questions about intimate matters that only the seeker and the deceased have prior knowledge of. We are meant to believe that George is not a fraud, after all, and we are never given any impossibly detailed explanation for how that can be. Damon sells all of this with a blunt force of sincerity and that is bound to supremely piss off every member of the audience who is unprepared to accept Hereafter as a work of fiction, not a docu-drama.

    Second case in point: As De France’s LeLay’s is increasingly treated as a nutcase by all of her former professional and intimate colleagues and as her former career eventually goes off the rails, LeLay never breaks down into self-pitying whimpering or vacillation. Instead, she steers her life in a new direction that is truer to the real imperatives that she now feels in her life. LeLay is not some “oppressed minority,” but she does have to contend with the bigotry of those who emphatically deny her point of view any shred of credibility. De France pulls this off with an outwardly breezy elan that is as tormented internally by personal betrayals as Damon’s Lonegan. This is also bound to be quickly dismissed by audience members who are not predisposed to a rational skepticism that is also tempered with any measure of open-mindedness.

    As for how things tie up at the London Book Fair and the fairy tale ending between Marie and George, I had no qualms. She’s died and come back, so George’s “curse” becomes his unique means of understanding what happened to Marie in a way that no one else can. To me, that is something lyrical, if not poetic. Again, this will upset some audience members, because it only serves to underscore that George is not a fraud.

    Marcus’ role in bringing George to Marie’s London hotel’s front desk introduces a much needed measure of gentle humor, too.

    Hereafter delivers no answers whatsoever about the afterlife, but it does conclude with three bright notes of new beginnings. In that, some might see the work of a benevolent divine hand. I saw three decent souls who chose to never give up. One does not contradict the other.

    I urge people to see Hereafter and to decide for themselves what Eastwood has delivered.