Hereafter is a European art-house movie with Hollywood production values.
It's yet another Eastwood movie that ranks as the best American film of the
year because it engages both heart and mind with its tale of three individuals
in different parts of the world disconnected from life by a brush with death.
In Asia, famous French TV reporter Marie (a luminous Cecile deFrance) briefly
dies during a horrific natural disaster and has a vision of what she suspects
may be the afterlife. Back home she can't get the experience out of her mind
and her obsession threatens her high-flying career and friendships. In San
Francisco, lonely, middle-aged factory worker George (Matt Damon) can apparently
talk to the dead but his 'gift' makes it impossible for him to form relationships
with anybody. Finally, on a grim housing estate in South London, young twins
Marcus and Jason (George & Frankie McClaren) try to fend off social workers from
taking their druggie Mum (Lyndsey Marchal) away. But when tragedy strikes Marcus
loses the brother he always depended on and that need drives him into the arms of
charlatans promising contact with the dead.
This is Eastwood's quietest film and one of his very best. The director has
always exhibited a fondness for emphasising character over plot but here he
goes further than ever before, luxuriating in the lives and surroundings of
these three very different people. Hereafter has almost no plot, a third of
it is subtitled, there's no villain, the film asks questions without supplying
answers, the actors don't 'act' in any showy Hollywood sense of the term, the
most spectacular sequence comes right at the start instead of at the end, and
death is the starting point for both the characters and the story rather than
All things that are clearly going to alienate a section of the movie-going
public simply because they're so unaccustomed to experiencing that. And yet
the same film features three ordinary people - not the buffed up superheroes
of so much contemporary American cinema - the mood isn't one of overriding
anger or self-pity (again, as so much modern American cinema tends to be) but
compassionate and thoughtful, kind of contemplative, and in its quietness
remarkably compelling. As the American critic Roger Ebert said, it induces in
the viewer something akin to the feeling of a reverie.
The actors are extraordinary. Matt Damon gives the best performance I've ever
seen from him. His lonely factory worker who aches for human contact and goes
to sleep listening to Dickens audio books is so heartfelt you find yourself
completely rooting for him but at the same time it's a totally unshowy
performance. That same low key quality applies in fact to the whole cast.
Cecile deFrance, looking a little like a young Julie Christie, is simply
terrific here, both intelligent & vulnerable, and the McClaren twins
have a rawness and authenticity that just works.
The craft side is equally impressive with the film moving smoothly between the
three story lines in 15 min chunks thanks to Eastwood's ace editors Joel Cox
and Gary Roach. Tom Stern's excellent photography gives each setting - Paris,
San Francisco and London - a distinct look and on the musical side Eastwood
himself contributes a lovely and sparingly used piano piece.
Those fearing some sort of preachy Hollywood confection about the afterlife
needn't worry. Even the exact nature of George's talent is ambiguous. We never
see him talking to an apparition, nor does he convey any warnings or
premonitions from beyond the grave. There's none of that. In fact if you watch
carefully you'll note that George tells his subjects nothing they don't already
know or could have imagined themselves. Revealingly, what messages he does
deliver all reinforce screenwriter Peter Morgan's key point; that there's no help
to be had from the dead, we're on our own and what matters are the love and the
connections we forge with others in this life.
Morgan's script gives short-shrift to both organised religion and the network
of New Age frauds who profit from people's misery. One of the more amusing
sequences shows Marcus visiting a succession of con men 'psychics' each of
whom offers increasingly ludicrous methods of contact with the dear departed.
Yet if all that sounds coldly secular and atheist Eastwood's film is deeply
sympathetic toward the need for those who've lost loved ones - who've ever
wondered what happens when we die - to voice their thoughts, and skewers a
materialistic western culture that fears and sidelines anyone who does.
Hereafter doesn't say there is an afterlife. On that point it is ambiguous but
in that ambiguity resides a genuine sense of mystery. It doesn't pretend to
have answers but simply asks the questions and it does so with intelligence and
compassion. It tells a story about lonely hearts under the shadow of death yet
comes down on the side of life, love and simple human connection - not with
ghosts - but with each other. I loved it.