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A supernatural thriller centered on three people -- a blue-collar American, a French journalist and a London school boy -- who are touched by death in different ways.
Release Date: 22 October 2010
Film as we know it is shallow. Part of that comes from the fact that it is fed by two competing art forms – narrative storytelling and visual artistry – that individually eat up cinema's one major limiting factor: time. And not always in a way the develops depth, especially the visual side which is much more about mood.
More to the point, audiences have made it clear over the decades that unlike other staged narratives – like plays or the opera – there is only so much time they are willing to invest in most films, putting severe pressure on any filmmaker wishing to really delve into a theme or character. For the most part what depth even the most talented filmmaker is able to achieve is hinted at more than anything else. To do more than that would require sacrificing plot or character in order to free up enough screen time, especially if you're subject is something nebulous and philosophical like the after life.
Which puts Clint Eastwood's afterlife drama "Hereafter" on unstable ground right from the start. On the one hand, anything plot oriented enough to keep the pace moving is likely to be so shallow it comes off as self-satisfying. On the other, anything that focuses on developing its intellectual themes at the expense of all else tends to come off as stultifyingly dull.
"Hereafter" attempts to tread a middle line between the two, and more or less succeeds mainly due to Eastwood's artful, restrained direction. The result is very slow build that reaches and reaches and reaches for conclusion it's not prepared to try and grasp. It's a frustrating experience that never really achieves what the filmmakers seem to be after.
More European than anything Eastwood has yet attempted, "Hereafter" follows three concurrent narratives each dealing in its own way with what happens when you die. After surviving the tsunami that devastated south Asia in 2004, French anchor and journalist Marie (Cécile De France) continues to relive her near death experience to the extent she's no longer able to focus on her work and instead begins to research a book on scientific proof of the afterlife. Across the Channel in England, young Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren) tries to come to grips with living life alone after his identical twin brother Jason is killed in a car accident. And in San Francisco, former professional medium George (Matt Damon) tries desperately to ignore his ability to commune with the other side in order to focus on a normal life, an endeavor he already suspects is futile.
On its own, many of the individual scenes are excellent, especially the tentative romance between George and cooking class partner Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard). Tellingly, though, sequences like this or Marie's mounting frustrations with being out of the limelight and what it might mean for her career tend to be the most interesting thing about the film. Whenever it turns its attention back to its main subject, "Hereafter" loses a lot of its punch.
It's not preachy, thank goodness. Eastwood and playwright turned screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen") put a great deal of subtlety into their work. Unfortunately its subtlety often in the service of simple conclusions; as an exploration of what life after death might mean it falls flat, especially when some of the more mystical elements come in to play. Taking advantage of real life tragedies such as the tsunami and Underground Bombings in London add a whiff of exploitation as well.
In the end, "Hereafter" can't quite make up its mind what it is exactly about, resulting in a film that builds and builds and builds … to nothing. It's not the worst philosophically themed film ever made, and quite a bit of it is good. But the problems of its genre and medium are insurmountable, resulting in neither drama nor truth. This won't be the nail in the coffin for these kinds of movies – someone will (and should) always attempt to prove they can do it – but it should be good warning sign. There are some things movies weren't meant to do.