A film review by Craig J. Koban November 3. 2010


2010, PG-13, 129 mins.


George Lonegan: Matt Damon / Marie LeLay: Cecile de France / Billy: Jay Mohr / Melanie: Bryce Dallas Howard / Marcus: George McLaren / Jason: Frankie McLaren / Didier: Thierry Neuvic / Dr. Rousseau: Marthe Keller / Himself: Derek Jacobi

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood / Screenplay by Peter Morgan

Considering the director/screenwriting team on display in the new supernatural drama HEREAFTER, I found myself with rather large expectations.  Clint Eastwood, eight decades old now, has rarely missed a beat as of late and has become a more intriguing and dependable filmmaker with each advancing year.  Writer Peter Morgan has penned some of the best films of recent memory in THE QUEEN, FROST/NIXON, and the terribly underrated THE DAMNED UNITED.  I guess I found it ultimately disconcerting to see the end result of their collaboration in HEREAFTER, which shows an unexpectedly undisciplined Eastwood at the helm filming a script by Morgan that lacks the cleverness, intrigue, and symmetry that has typified his best screenplays.    

No doubt, Eastwood is one of the finest contemporary filmmakers working today, but his overall approach to this material is odd and distancing, not to mention that it fails to show the veteran displaying any tangible interest in the subject matter.  It's commendable for Eastwood at this late stage in his career redefining himself as an auteur with each new film, and HEREAFTER could not be any more different from, say, GRAN TORINO, CHANGELING, and MILLION DOLLAR BABY.  Yet, you'd think that he would have more to say about the prospect of an afterlife than what HEREAFTER has to contribute.  Instead of wise insight and some underplayed gravitas that Eastwood is notable for, HEREAFTER’s dealing with its otherworldly themes almost feels like an afterthought.  Yes, Eastwood's direction is finely nuanced and well tailored and he garners consistently good performances from his cast, but there’s little sense that he is truly invested in the material here.

And then there is Morgan’s screenplay, which, like BABEL and CRASH, tells multiple storylines - three, to be precise – that run parallel throughout the entire film and unavoidably converge and intersect with one another during the final act.  The story – which deals with how three different people from three different places in the world are affected by death in different ways – is ambitious, but the main problem with Morgan’s handling of it is his overall approach.  Instead of finding a tangible and meaningful link between the three vignettes, his script seems to be overreaching for substantial reasons for them to crossover in the end.  All in all, this has the impression of making the narrative feel meandering and formless as well as making the connections between all of the characters feel that much more convenient and mechanical.  Apparently, HEREAFTER was a spec script for the British writer and one that he wrote “intuitively” without much in the way of planning or a basic outline, and it shows.  Too much of the time, this film feels uneven and lacking in momentum.   

HEREAFTER does open with a sequence featuring astonishing visual effects artistry: Marie Lelay (the luminous Cecile De France) is on assignment in Thailand in 2004 when she becomes the unwitting victim – and survivor – of the real life Indian Ocean tsunami that pulverized the nation.  The Los Angeles-based Scanline VFX created the extraordinary sequence that features full CGI water, digital stunt doubles, set extensions, and environmental destruction of all forms.  It is an absolute tour de force introduction to the film, although considering the low key and commandingly understated approach that personifies the best of the Eastwood film canon, this obtrusive scene seems perhaps a bit out of place, especially considering the type of sincere dramatic veracity that the film strives for later on.  Nonetheless, this sequence is extraordinarily rendered and achieved. 

Marie is pulled out of the water and appears very much dead, but before she is resuscitated by her rescuers, she…well…experiences something that appears to be a series of human figures populating a realm of bright light (one of the film’s nagging problems is that it never satisfactorily finds a way to make the “hereafter” glimpses compelling; they more or less are just vague and formless abstractions).  After Marie and her lover, Didier (Thierry Neuvic) return to Paris, Marie’s past near-death experience leaves her constantly distracted from performing her job as a reporter, so much so that Didier (also her producer) politely orders her to take a leave of absence to refocus and rehabilitate herself. 

The second story thread concerns 12-year-old twins Marcus and Jason (played by Frankie and George McLaren) that live in London with their habitually intoxicated and unfit mother, Jackie (Lindsey Marshal).  After skillfully evading child protective services, Jackie sends Jason on a trip to the pharmacist, which ends in tragedy: while trying to run away from some nefarious teen street thugs, Jason runs out on to the street and his hit and killed by van.  With his twin brother dead and a grieving mother that can't look after her son, let alone herself, Marcus is forced to live with foster parents, during which time he becomes obsessed with discovering a way to communicate with his deceased sibling. 

The final – and perhaps most interesting – story thread concerns a San Francisco man named George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a once respected psychic that has long since retired to a blue collar working life.  George’s brother (a somewhat out of place Jay Mohr) is frustrated that he does not use what he thinks are “gifts” to make himself rich, famous, and help people in the process, but George sees communicating and talking to dead people the ultimate curse that has interfered with his ability to live a normal life.   He attempts to root his life in a haze of anaesthetizing normalcy: he works at a factory, lives in a modest apartment, and even takes an evening class on Italian cooking, but no matter what he tries to do his past as a psychic creeps back up on him.  Even his attempts to court a cute fellow cooking student (well played by Bryce Dallas Howard, albeit in an underwritten role) are beset with roadblocks caused by his past, which is revealed when she asks him to give her a reading, during which he discovers secrets she did not want anyone else to know. 

One thing that Eastwood does in HEREAFTER with a dependable proficiency is mentoring solid performances from his actors:  Damon, who worked with Eastwood recently on INVICTUS, creates another performance that’s quietly sincere and authoritative (Damon and Eastwood, if anything, greatly compliment each other’s working styles).  I also liked Cecile de France’s poignant and soulful work as a woman that desperately tries to find inner meaning in her most amazing brush with death.  Notable to her scenes is that they are all, for the most part, presented in French with subtitles, and it is nice to see an American made film with an A-list Hollywood filmmaker where we see French characters living in France speaking in their native tongue, which gives HEREAFTER a nice European flavor that Eastwood has never really attempted before.  Also, HEREAFTER is punctuated by another beautiful and hauntingly melancholic score by the director that sparingly uses guitar strings and piano cords to delineate the emotional core of his scenes.   

Yet, for as technically consummate as the film is, I dare to ask again: couldn’t the mighty twosome of Eastwood and Morgan have crafted a more intrinsically fascinating portrait of the afterlife?  Here is a film that dives into one of mankind’s most thought about spiritual concepts and it never dwells on any type of religious significance to them.  Not even God is brought into any conversation between the characters at any point.  Logically, if there were a man that could communicate with the dead, wouldn't a question about a deity in the afterlife be brought to his attention?.  Also, the attempt to visualize the afterlife world lacks even modest imagination and innovation: it’s mostly just a monochromatic blur of images.  Considering the way Eastwood uses upper tier visual effects artisans to recreate the Thai-tsunami, you would think that he would also envision the afterlife with a bit more flair and interest. 

Then there is the dicey usage of real life calamities – the 2004 tsunami and, in a later scene, the London underground terrorist bombings – that seems to be used a bit shamelessly for the purposes of advancing the story and creating moments that are touchingly evocative.  Instead, their inclusion seems more obtrusive and distracting than anything else.  Morgan’s script also fails at providing a strong dramatic interest in his various characters in his three storylines.  Damon is rock solid as his world-weary medium, but his character is only sketchily developed (the reasons for his extra-sensory abilities are revealed in one force-fed bit of expositional dialogue) and we never really learn what makes him tick; he’s a curious enigma in the film, even when he makes a failed attempt at a relationship with Howard’s character (in a subplot that begins sweetly, but is then quickly abandoned) and even later when he becomes a focal point in the lives of the London boy and the French reporter late in the game. 

In due course, the aforementioned problem with the three parallel storylines themselves and how they converge in the end is HEREAFTER’s real undoing.  Eastwood cuts back and forth between the story threads so haphazardly that it takes forever for any semblance of a cohesive whole to emerge from them, and by the time George, Marie, and Marcus do hook up, it’s almost a bit too late in the game.  The lives of these personas don’t feel connected by the process of fate more than they do by the contrivances of a screenplay (it also does not help that Damon’s arc is the only real thread that creates any sustained interest: an entire film could have been devoted just to him).  I see where Eastwood and Morgan wanted to go with this material, but the problem with HEREAFTER is that they have apparently made the film without much a roadmap.  Eastwood remains a masterful film director and Morgan still is one of the most shrewd and savvy writers around, but HEREAFTER regrettably is not indicative of their respective greatness...at least as much as it should have been.

  H O M E