One would expect Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Hereafter, to be the chilling supernatural thriller advertised in the movie’s trailers. With films like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, and Gran Torino under his belt, surely Clint could capture the excitement and nightmarish intensity of a film concerned with questions of life after death. Moreover, with a Peter Morgan screenplay (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Frost/Nixon), there should be no question of the film’s ability to mesmerize audiences. However, despite the undeniable talents of the cast and crew, this thrill-less thriller does nothing for the genre. At best, Hereafter is a sluggish drama only mildly interested in the idea of the afterlife.
The film focuses on three characters, all strangers from different countries, who have recently experienced death. Marie, a French journalist (played by Cecile De France), nearly drowns in a devastating tsunami that destroys an entire coastal city. While being swept away by the ferocious wave, Marie loses consciousness and experiences what she believes to be the hereafter. Marcus (played by Frankie and George McLaren), an introverted British schoolboy, becomes increasingly obsessed with the concept of the afterlife when he loses his twin brother in a tragic car accident. Moreover, he must mourn the death of his brother in a temporary home while his heroin-addict mother goes to rehab. Finally, George (Matt Damon) is a psychic from San Francisco who abandons his life of fame (or at least frequent recognition) when he can no longer cope with the perpetual sadness that accompanies his “gift.” Individually, each character’s story is compelling, tragic, and beautiful, and deserving of its own film. Together, the stories seem under-developed—there just isn’t enough time to give each plot the attention it warrants. Yet the film moves so slowly that it is difficult to resist the temptation of checking the clock repeatedly to make sure time hasn’t stopped altogether. It is as if there is too much going on and nothing happening at the same time.
Peter Morgan’s Crash-like plot, where the individual stories eventually weave together to form one cohesive unit, is too safe. Unlike true supernatural thrillers, such as The Sixth Sense and What Dreams May Come, Hereafter carefully avoids concrete speculations of an afterlife, effectively ignoring the—often controversial—supernatural issues that come into question in any worthwhile discussion of life after death. Aside from George’s psychic ability, which he is reluctant to employ, and Marie’s brief vision of the hereafter, the film denies viewers the pleasure of conjecturing images of ghosts and hauntings. Simply put, there is no suspense, tension, or fear.
If these were the film’s only weaknesses, perhaps we could grant Clint a reprieve. After all, even the best shooters miss the mark now and again. However, the rudimentary problems with focus and sound mixing are unforgiveable, and the image of the afterlife presented in the film looks as if it was stolen out of the closing scene in Ghost (think heavy backlighting and human profiles). Clint uses low-key lighting (read: hardly any lighting) during George’s psychic readings in an amateurish attempt to establish an eerie atmosphere, which leads this critic to believe that our director spent his whole budget on the over-the-top CGI tsunami scene that there wasn’t enough money left for proper lighting. What is frustrating is not the deathly slow pacing or the lackluster performances (although it is a welcome change to see Damon let the gray go in this age-appropriate role), but rather that we can see the film’s potential to be a remarkable piece of cinema in the hands of a more-than-capable master like Clint Eastwood.
But perhaps we should not fault Clint, or even Peter Morgan, for the substandard Hereafter. Instead, we must look to the mismanaged marketing of the film for the disparity between what we want to see in a film about the afterlife (released just in time for Halloween, no less) and what we are hoodwinked into watching. A film with more product placements than character arcs, Hereafter fails to create tension or generate interest in its supposed subject. But if you’re still looking for a film with suspense, frightening moments, and a bit of spectacle, maybe check out Jackass 3D instead.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Peter Morgan; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary Roach; original music by Clint Eastwood; production designer, James Murakami; produced by Clint Eastwood, Kathleen Kennedy, Robert Lorenz, Frank Marshall, Tim Moore, Peter Morgan, and Steven Spielberg; released by Warner Brothers. Runtime: 129 min.
With: Matt Damon (George), Frankie and George McLaren (Marcus/Jayson), Cecile De France (Marie Lelay), and Jay Mohr (Billy).
Review by Melissa Cleary