If there’s a motor that drives human behavior outside of our desires for survival, comfort and reproduction, our fear of and fascination with the mystery of death is surely it. Religion, art, philosophy and science have been preoccupied with the question since before recorded history, and the history of film is no different. From serious allegory (THE SEVENTH SEAL) to horror (JACOB’S LADDER) to drama (FEARLESS) to comedy (BEETLEJUICE), movies have offered their own breadth of perspectives on the question of what happens when you die. No answer is forthcoming, of course, but maybe that’s not the point of asking the question.
That certainly seems to be the philosophy animating Clint Eastwood’s HEREAFTER, a movie about death that wants to say things about life. Even while giving us a character who clearly possesses some kind of unusual insight – the seeming ability to speak to the dead – it is careful never to make any outright factual claims about what lies beyond, instead concerning itself with what happens to the living in the here and now.
That character is George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a former spirit medium who appears to be the genuine deal; when he holds a “client’s” hands, he can clearly perceive the faces of the people they have lost and how they were connected. He knows things he can’t possibly have been told – but crucially, the things he knows are all things his clients knew. He might be incredibly insightful or outright telepathic, but the movie never says that he’s actually speaking to the dead. Whatever his gift really is, George has found it more like a curse, and has given up the New Age psychic business for a more grounded job on a factory floor in Oakland and night classes at the local community college, much to the chagrin of his ambitious brother Billy (Jay Mohr).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Marie (Cecile de France), a French news anchor, is caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and nearly drowns in a genuinely terrifying scene that won the film an Academy Award nomination for visual effects – and has recently gotten it pulled from Japanese screens following the events of two weeks ago. Much like Jeff Bridges in FEARLESS, Marie’s brush with death changes her, causing her to lose interest in her high-powered career, grow distant from her friends, and become galvanized with a strange obsession about what may lie beyond.
And in London, the lives of two precocious young twin boys are shattered when one is hit by a truck; his brother Marcus (played by twins George and Frankie McLaren) becomes despondent and distant, disappearing from his foster home and stealing money to visit psychics and spirit mediums around town in hopes of contacting his brother but is disappointed by one fraud after another.
It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that these people’s stories eventually intersect; what was both interesting and frustrating to me is how low-key Eastwood keeps the proceedings. After the initial terror of the tsunami, the film holds no shocks and few dramatic fireworks. Perhaps that is an unavoidable consequence of telling a story about people who have become withdrawn and antisocial, but it casts a grim chill over the movie.
That is not to say it is uninteresting. The characters are carefully and sensitively drawn and are, to a one, convincing as people. I deeply appreciated that Marie’s scenes are filmed almost entirely in French and subtitled, a brave decision in modern Hollywood. And, typically for an Eastwood film, the physical world of HEREAFTER is tremendously realistic: every house, every office, every locale, from George’s cooking class to the set of the French news program, feels like a real and three-dimensional place, and that realism helps ground the fantasy of the story. And the quiet and contemplative tone of the movie is well-served by the minimalist music Eastwood has composed for it. But I ended up respecting the film more than I actually loved it. It is a good movie that has things to say, but for a film that wants us to wake up and seize life, it is strangely timid, and that is a shame.
Video: Visually, Hereafter is as laid-back and contemplative as it is dramatically, but it is a detailed movie, with environments that tell us a lot about the characters, so the 2.35:1 Blu-Ray transfer serves it well. The color palette tends toward blues, grays, and shadows, but the generally dim lighting and overall feel of the movie do not obscure the image.
Audio: The 5.1 DTS soundtrack does not get much of a workout here with the exception of the breathtaking opening tsunami. After that, though, there is little here besides dialogue and the soft strains of Clint Eastwood’s piano, but they come through crisply and cleanly.
The Eastwood Factor: Extended Edition – Now here’s a meaty supplement: a feature-length documentary about Clint Eastwood’s legendary career as an actor, composer, director and sometime-politician. At 88 minutes, this is no puff piece but a serious treasure trove of interviews, film clips and anecdotes.
Tsunami! Recreating a Disaster – a short featurette about the practical effects and CGI used to create the harrowing and memorable sequence that opens the film.
Clint on Casting – A short interview with the director about the decisions involved in casting the film, interspersed with interesting (but alas, too brief) clips of him on the job, directing actors on set.
Delving into “Hereafter” – A six-minute featurette focusing on real-life spirit mediums and parapsychologists, an odd decision considering how the film savages the world of New Age hokum. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t care for it, and their “insights” come off as cheap and tawdry in comparison to the warm and humane attitude of the actual film.
French Speaking French – A very abbreviated (~2 minutes) examination of Eastwood’s decision (at screenwriter Peter Morgan’s urging) to film the French scenes in actual French.
Twin Bonding – A six-minute look at the phenomenon of identical twins and their relationships, featuring both the young actors George and Frankie McLaren and the film’s producer Kathleen Kennedy and her sister.
The Eastwood Experience – Not to be confused with the Eastwood Factor, this is a short collection of interviews with the cast and crew on their feelings about working with the living legend.
Is There Life After Death? – The cast, crew, and writer of Hereafter share their thoughts on the question in this four-minute piece.
Casting the Silent Characters – A three-minute examination of the film’s multiple location shoots, from Europe to the Pacific Ocean.
Trailers – Oddly, there are none.