Making an earnest cinematic argument for the immortality of the soul and the existence of an afterlife without delving into mushy sentimentality is a difficult task for even the most gifted and "serious" of filmmakers. Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson discovered as much last year when his sappy, grandiose adaptation of the ethereal bestseller The Lovely Bones opened to scathing reviews. Critics, by and large, tend to bristle at movie renderings of what may or may not await them in that Great Arthouse in the Sky.
And yet filmmakers seem determined to keep trying. The latest to make the attempt is Clint Eastwood, who, throughout his celebrated directorial career, has certainly demonstrated a firm grasp of the death part of the equation. His filmography, with a few notable exceptions, practically revels in it: of his recent oeuvre, Invictus is the only work that doesn't deal with mortality in some significant manner. With his new film, Hereafter, Eastwood hopes to add immortality to his thematic resume.
The film's narrative centers on three characters, each of whom has intimate experience with death and loss. Their stories, in true Eastwood fashion, can ostensibly be labeled Sad, Sadder, and Saddest: Marie (Cecile de France) is a French TV news anchor who's haunted by disturbing flashbacks after she loses consciousness and briefly, her life during a natural disaster; George (Matt Damon, looking credibly schlubby) is a former psychic whose skills as a medium are so potent (the slightest touch from another human being triggers an instant, powerful psychic connection, a la Rogue from X-Men) they've left him isolated and alone; Marcus is a London schoolboy who retreats into a somber shell after losing his twin brother in a tragic car accident (both brothers are played, rather impressibly, by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren).
Humanity offers little help to these troubled souls, surrounding them with skeptics, charlatans, users, and deadbeats, none of whom are particularly helpful with crises of an existential nature. Luckily, there are otherworldly options. Peter Morgan's script assumes psychics, out-of-body experiences, and other such phenomena to be real and legitimate, but in a non-denominational, Coast-to-Coast AM kind of way. Unlike Jackson's syrupy, CGI-drenched glimpses of the afterlife, Eastwood's visions of the Other Side are vague and eery dark, fuzzy silhouettes of the departed, set against a white background. Only Damon's character, George, seems capable of drawing meaning from them, which is why he's constantly sought out by grief-stricken folks desperate to make contact with loved ones who've recently passed on. He's John Edward, only real (and not a douche).
Marie and Marcus appear destined to find him as well, but only as the last stop on wearisome, circuitous, and often heartbreaking spiritual journeys that, together with George's hapless pursuit of a more temporal connection (psychic ability, it turns out, can be a wicked cock-blocker), consume the bulk of Hereafter's running time. We know the three characters' paths must inevitably intersect, but Morgan's script stubbornly forestalls this eventuality, testing our patience for nearly two ponderous and maudlin hours, and ultimately building up expectations for a climax Eastwood can't deliver, at least not without sacrificing any hope of credulity.
It should be noted that Hereafter features a handful of genuinely touching moments, thanks in great part to the film's tremendous cast. And its finale is refreshingly upbeat. Unfortunately, it also feels forced and terribly unsatisfying. Eastwood, an established master of all things tragic and forlorn, struggles mightily to mount a happy ending. (Which, in my opinion, is much more challenging than a sad or ambiguous one.) After prompting us to seriously ponder life's ultimate question, Eastwood's final answer seems to be: Don't worry about it.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.