If it seems I have lost track of the review before it has even started, that is because merely thinking about the word "ponderous" has given me more joy and provoked more thought than anything in the total of Hereafter's two and a half hours. If there is anything positive to be found in the movie's plodding, half-baked, hollow treatises on the possibility of life after death, it is that Clint Eastwood's lifeless direction may finally swing people around to my side. Perhaps America's most coddled filmmaker has at last pushed his luck too far.
It takes balls to open a film that has nothing to do with any real life tragedy with the real life tragedy of the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the shamelessness of the opening segment sets a low bar the film never manages to clear. Focusing on Marie (Cécile de France), a French television journalist on holiday, the sequence plays out in clumsily animated CGI that leads to a choreographed setpiece that appears to want to excite more than terrify. As the water carries Marie and everything else in its unstoppable crush, we get cheap glimpses of cars crashing into people and power lines falling into the water and zapping nearby souls. Worse still, the POV shots of the camera moving through the water feel like a flume ride at Disneyland, and they're about as spiritually rewarding. Worse still, Marie drowns and spends a few moments legally dead, during which time she crosses over to the other side and sees the stereotypical bright light. The digital effects here are distracting, if more cleverly done than the cheap wash of water previously seen, and the tease of the afterlife does nothing to spark curiosity, much less wonder. Eastwood is clearly out of his element here, but no other film has more sorely tested the idea whether he has any directorial element at all.
Jim Emerson recently posted some serious thoughts on Eastwood's supposed legacy as a director that track closely enough to my own that I need not enumerate my issues with him here (or at least, not again). Where I disagree with Emerson is in his claim that, apart from the classicist gloss Eastwood paints over his films, there's nothing in them to make any one seem, on its face, a Clint Eastwood film. That's largely true, but there are a few recurring themes. Chief among them in his modern work is the idea of lost innocence, a realm Steven Spielberg has been plumbing his entire creative life. Eastwood, however, tends to enjoy more critical adulation for his supposed maturity on the subject where Spielberg is too much of a man-child. As it so happens, I recently returned to Sir Steve's Empire of the Sun, a film that depicts the decay of a boy's innocence through separation and atrocity, told almost exclusively though visual means that blur the line between subjective romanticism and objective horror in a way that would not be equaled until Guillermo Del Toro took it to the next step with Pan's Labyrinth. When Eastwood wants to communicate lost innocence, he lets it be known that a child was raped, or killed (or both). I posit the question: which of these approaches sounds less nuanced?
Hereafter, a movie about the possibility of a life after death, must naturally also concern death, and one of the several diverging and converging storylines -- yes, Peter Morgan saw Crash and Babel and apparently thought the network narrative had not sufficiently been snuffed -- involves two adorable, precocious twin brothers. Is one of them abused or killed? Check. Oh, and they also care for a mother who's an alcoholic (and a junkie, because when it rains it
Then, Eastwood introduces the main arc, that of George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a construction worker who, we learn, has the ability to communicate with the dead. No, really. You'd be forgiven for thinking he was a fraud, for the yes/no questions he asks his clients are of the same sort that charlatans use to lead gullible and vulnerable payers. In fact, when Morgan's script addresses the frauds, it must paint them in the most absurd light possible just to make George's style plausible, calling into question how anyone could be fooled.
George, of course, just wants to leave that side of his life behind him, saying on two occasions that his ability "isn't a gift. It's a curse." He takes night classes on cooking, where he meets nepotism personified, Bryce Dallas Howard, who shows up late to the first lesson because she was playing the Anne Hathaway role in M. Night Shyamalan's remake of The Devil Wears Prada -- the twist is that it's actually the Devil! Howard brings all her halting, overacted anti-charm to the part of Melanie, whose presence is cut mercifully short when she gets close to George and insists he read her when she learns of his powers. I don't want to give away what the reading reveals, but if you've been paying attention so far you can guess when I say "double check."
The problem with network narratives is that it's difficult to transition between storylines without editing arbitrarily, and rarely has this flaw been so evident. Before we spend enough time with anyone to care about their issues and their pain, Eastwood leaps countries and continents to deal with the most tenuously related bullshit. I've often been nonreactive to something meant to be sad in a film, but never have I been so utterly unmoved by the death of a child on-screen. All I could think about was the absurd editing of a van with a large grill braking before striking the poor British lad, who then somehow flipped up and over the grill to smash into the windshield. I couldn't be expected to believe in this film's vision of an afterlife because it doesn't have any care for physics in its life-life.
That laziness is rampant in this picture. Eastwood needs to stop scoring his films. There, the end. John Carpenter has a way with electronic minimalism. Robert Rodriguez has a raucous Latin-rock-jazz flare. Clint Eastwood perennially sounds like he's tuning the instruments for the actual musicians who never arrive. I always hold out hope for the films he scores that the three-note guitar and repeating piano chord will morph into something atmospheric in the vein of Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas score or Neil Young's haunting work on Dead Man, then I remember that those two are accomplished musicians with a deep knowledge of the craft and not some guy on a power trip trying to prove he can do it all. All exposition is handled through dialogue, including a medical diagnosis for George's ability to speak to the dead, and just when you've gotten over the offensiveness of using the tsunami to suck people in, Eastwood chucks in the London Tube bombings for added offensiveness. When Marcus looks for videos on YouTube that talk about death and the afterlife, he first watches a video by a Muslim who speaks of the Qur'an, then Marcus watches another video, this time by an evangelical. If you pay attention to the text of the video description, however, it does not change when Marcus picks another video, so it still talks about the Five Pillars of Islam leading to salvation as a man talks about Jesus. That little moment summed up the entire film for me: no effort whatsoever.
Worst of all is the depiction of the afterlife. It may sound childish and direct to say this, but there is a great charm in the blunt honesty of childish perception. So here it is: I despise this vision of the afterlife. Christopher Hitchens once hilariously described the Judeo-Christian conception of heaven as a "celestial North Korea," in which the supposedly blessed were charged with singing homilies to the "Great Leader" for all eternity. I am reminded of the old stories of Stalinist Russia, in which audiences clapped for hours because the first one who stopped would be sent to the Gulag.
Peter Morgan's vision of a pan-humanist afterlife is even more dull. Voices do not stay with George long because they want to get back to the wonderful existence of the afterlife, yet whenever we catch a glimpse of the world beyond, we see only silhouettes of people standing idly in pure white as if waiting for George to talk to them. They have no real wisdom to impart, because they're trapped in a film that doesn't have anything to say either. They stand in the Elysian Fields waiting for anything interesting to happen. I wonder, then, if they're a reflection of Hereafter's audience.
This is cardboard depth, typified by the emptiness of the character-building traits used to try to make these characters appealing. Marie's experience makes her the one person most worthy of our attention, yet Morgan defines her character in the simplest means, focusing on her reputation as a hard-hitting journalist until suddenly he doesn't, suggesting a breakdown from survivor's guilt until explaining away all the bad things that happened to her as the result of the actions of others. George's quirk is that he loves Charles Dickens, the relevance of which is never shown. I did, however, perk up when Eastwood included a scene of Derek Jacobi, as himself, reading excerpts from Little Dorrit. With Jacobi's classically trained voice and the enduring majesty of Dickens' prose, I had the same look of wonder on my face as Damon and wished I could have listened to that autographed book-on-tape George picked up instead of watching this tired hokum.
And if network narratives diverge on the shakiest of grounds, they fare even worse when everything comes together. A film about death and the afterlife can have no truly explosive dénouement -- I was deeply amused, as ever, by David Edelstein, who wondered aloud if the film might have tried for a big ending by making a metaphysical version of the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of the characters stepping into a mother ship of death -- but the uneventful finale only underscores the uselessness of what preceded it. Hereafter doesn't have a damn thing to say about death, or life, or life after death, and the maudlin pablum Morgan uses to justify why people might need to believe in an afterlife serves only to throw his fellow atheists under a bus (at which point they would presumably somehow bounce back up into the bus' windshield). Eastwood gets more solid work from Damon, who can make a splash in seemingly anything, and his work with the young, non-professional actors who play the boys stands in sharp contrast to the atrocious job he did with child actors on Gran Torino. But it's all for naught, a decorative flourish on something terrible, like spraying Febreeze on dog shit. Earlier this year, I let Inception off the hook for some of its issues because the ambition and the effervescent cheek of it carried me past the tin-hollow psychology on its questions of reality and surreality.
The problem with Hereafter is that, for its weighty idea, there's no ambition on any level of the project. Not in the tack script, not in Eastwood's workmanlike direction, not even in the performances. It's as if everyone realized halfway through that this picture had no point and went right into CYA mode. The result is a rumination on mortality that makes The Five People You Meet in Heaven look sophisticated and genuine. If nothing else, its lack of narrative cohesion, two-dimensional characters, shameless attempts to elicit an emotional response and clueless depiction of the afterlife proved one thing: Clint Eastwood totally could have directed the finale of LOST.