Hereafter unfortunately is three quarters of a great film and one quarter of a substandard one. But first, let’s start with the good stuff. First and foremost, it continues Clint Eastwood’s desire to push himself as a director into incredibly ambitious, unusual material well outside his comfort zone.
It’s quietly thrilling to see the former Dollars star grapple with multiple timelines and characters, and Hereafter is also cloaked in that compelling aura of ambiguity that earmarked Oscar-winning efforts such as Million Dollar Baby. In this era of effects first, story later, being allowed to bask in a narrative which unfolds at its own pace is a breath of fresh air.
It also features one of the best opening sequences of a movie in years. French journalist Marie (Cecile de France, best known for the ultra-gory Switchblade Romance), is caught up in the 2004 Asian tsunami in a truly terrifying scene-setter. Deploying both physical and CGI effects to brilliant effect, Eastwood ensures the consequences of this dramatic curtain-raiser reverberate through the rest of the film. Marie, having drowned, undergoes a near death experience, witnessing the beyond before emerging back into debris-strewn, horrific reality.
But even as she’s forced to re-assess her life, her story is only one part of Eastwood’s fluid, riveting tapestry. We also take in Matt Damon’s conflicted San Francisco medium who has rejected his gift in an attempt to live a normal life; and a young boy in London (Frankie and George McLaren) who, having recently lost his brother, is left in the hands of social services by his drug-addicted mother (Lyndsey Marshal, excellent). There’s also a nice moment where Damon enjoys a flirtation with Bryce Dallas Howard whom he meets at an Italian cookery class but that segment, charming and understated as it is, is soon abandoned.
For the most part, Eastwood underplays the hokey excesses of Peter Morgan’s uncharacteristically trite screenplay, utilising a muted colour palette and crisp editing in order to ground the silliness in some kind of plausible reality. It sounds like the most awful kind of Hallmark Movie of the Week, but through death the characters learn to appreciate life (didn’t Gary Oldman say that in Leon?), and it is during this portion that the film grips the most. Watching the latter day development of Eastwood’s helming skills is truly one of the most exciting things in contemporary cinema.
When it comes to the vague supernatural overtones, Eastwood seems less interested, instead favouring multi-stranded, character-driven drama in the style of Mystic River: a world of internal anguish and moral grey areas (underplaying the ludicrousness of his character, Eastwood sensibly shoots Damon in half-shadow the first time we see him). We could do without the daft X Files-style visions though; surely what we imagine in our heads is far more wondrous?
Some strong casting also helps enormously. Both Damon and de France are excellent at putting a compelling face on daft archetypes (the American medium; the unfeasibly glamorous Frenchwoman), and the glacial pacing places more emphasis on the need for strong performances. The London section struggles a bit more (not as much as other sniffy critics have made out though), with Eastwood suggesting a world of apples and pears down the ol’ Kent Road (our Social Services people don’t come off well either). Casting the inexperienced McLaren brothers meanwhile is a brave move but not an entirely successful one.
But once the action is forced to resolve all the disparate threads in dear ol’ Blighty, all the saints in Heaven come crashing down to Earth with a bump. It’s a real shame but while the stories were kept separate, the film kept a check on the silliness. The last act, however, feels completely artificial and contrived, even staging a key meeting during the London Book Fair where Derek Jacobi makes a cameo experience as himself. Eastwood’s sincerity is eventually undermined by the fantasy he had previously kept in check, and, despite his previous attempts to grapple with serious matters in commendably understated fashion, Hereafter ends up as convincing as a reading from Mystic Meg.