Many of us have a terrible tendency to pigeonhole filmmakers into the genres we think they’re best suited for. When I first saw the trailer for Hereafter, I, like much of the moviegoing public, was unpleasantly surprised at the thought of Clint Eastwood having directed a supernatural drama. Given his recent triumphs with films like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, Gran Torino, and Invictus, it just didn’t seem like something he would have or should have done. As usual, I was reacting impulsively; Hereafter is an incredibly strong film, in large part because Eastwood resisted the temptation to treat it as a thriller. It certainly has mysterious elements, but for the most part, it’s a poignant, thought-provoking story of how different people react to traumatic circumstances.
The common thread of the story is death – or, more accurately, what awaits us after we die. Although glimpses of a spiritual void are revealed, neither Eastwood nor writer Peter Morgan makes any grand claims as to what it is or how it works. In other words, the film assumes the reality of life after death, but it doesn’t linger on details such as heaven, hell, purgatory, or anything else resembling eternal punishment or eternal reward. There isn’t even a discussion about the existence of God. This isn’t a criticism. We’ve seen far too many movies in which deathly states are both explicitly examined and regarded with either extreme sentimentality or extreme terror; Hereafter wisely avoids these clichés, in effect keeping the true nature of death a mystery.
The film is initially structured as three separate storylines, all of which theatrically but cleverly converge during the final act. In the first storyline, we follow Marie Lelay (Cécile de France), a French television journalist for a left-wing political program. While on vacation, a tsunami tears through the resort and sweeps her away, causing a near death experience. (While never directly stated, I’m forced to assume that Eastwood was depicting the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that destroyed coastal cities in Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.) Miraculously, she’s revived. However, upon returning to France, she finds the experience has had more of an effect than she ever thought possible. She can no longer concentrate on her work, damaging her celebrity status. She’s consumed with thoughts of life after death, a possibility that neither her atheist lover (Thierry Neuvic) nor her secular coworkers are willing to consider.
The second story focuses on George Lonegan (Matt Damon) a San Francisco factory worker who, after a childhood illness, gained psychic powers, specifically the ability to talk to the dead. He doesn’t consider it a blessing, and he flatly refuses to step back into the spotlight as a celebrity psychic. In an Italian cooking class, he strikes up a friendship with a female student named Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), which seems like the beginnings of a contrived Hollywood romance until he takes her to his apartment; at that point, a simple but disturbing scene makes his reasons for trying to keep his ability abundantly clear. His brother (Jay Mohr) simply doesn’t understand where he’s coming from; the way he sees it, George is missing out on a tremendous financial opportunity.
The third story centers on a British boy named Marcus (Frankie McLaren), whose identical twin brother, Jason (George McLaren), is struck and killed after running in the middle of the street. This tragedy is made worse due to the fact that his mother, Jackie (Lyndsey Marshal), is a both drug addict and an alcoholic, forcing her into rehab; Marcus, now alone and in foster care, becomes withdrawn and moody, looking uncannily like the proverbial creepy child from a horror movie – pale skin, sunken eyes, and never a smile on his face. He gets obsessed with finding some way to reconnect with Jason’s spirit, thus beginning his citywide search for a medium, someone who isn’t merely selling crackpot ideas but can actually speak with the dead.
This particular plotline includes one of the film’s best scenes, in which Jackie tearfully but bravely says goodbye to Marcus in the Social Services office. The reason it works so well is because it develops Jackie against our expectations. We’ve been conditioned by other films to see characters like her as hopeless and uncaring; I was prepared for scenes of emotional breakdowns and irrational behavior, such as her being completely unable to cope with Jason’s death and somehow finding a way to blame it on Marcus. But nothing that conventional ever happens – even before her son dies, we see that she’s finally coming to terms with her addiction problems, and her resolve only seems to strengthen after Jason’s funeral. So too does her love for Marcus.
The ending is perhaps too conventional, although it appropriately challenges George’s assertion that absolutely nothing good can come from his psychic abilities. It also nicely plays into the film’s message, namely that, regardless of whether or not there is life after death, we must make the most of the time we’re given here on Earth. Inevitably, this will involve the difficult but necessary task of moving on after a period of grieving; life is not about staying in the past, but going ahead. There may be certain atmospheric elements of Hereafter that seem atypical for Clint Eastwood, but in no way do they affect his affinity for strength of character and engaging stories. Don’t dismiss this movie simply because of its supernatural overtones. There’s so much more to it than that.