Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Hereafter, the new Clint Eastwood film about near-death experience, life after death and love in the here-and-now, may be a lot of hooey, but it’s hooey done right: moment to moment, performance by performance, with precision and grace. Apparently, my opinion of the film goes against that of much of the critical establishment, not to mention the general populace, who, if it didn’t exactly ignore the film, certainly did not send its box-office reeling. Yet this unusually-themed, for Eastwood, movie bests the filmmaker’s heavy-handed Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino via its surprising delicacy -- never more so than when dealing with one-on-one moments. Perhaps this auteur’s choice of subject matter -- less “macho” than most of his movies -- put off his fan base, and that's too bad.
Eastwood is a director who generally favors cliché, which makes it all the more remarkable how precisely and with great feeling the scenes between his various protagonists turn out. He's aided by a great cast -- Matt Damon, Cécile De France, The Sopranos' Steve Schirripa (also fine -- yet so different -- in the recent Hungry Ghosts), A Serious Man's kind Richard Kind, Jay Mohr, Stéphane Freiss, and Bryce Dallas Howard, who's better here than I've seen her in any other of her films.
Eastwood has also given his actors the space to react, respond and live -- and then put this together (sharply edited by frequent Eastwood editor Joel Cox and Gary Roach) so that we're with these people moment-to-moment and about as deeply and realistically as movies make possible. Unlike, say, Changeling, in which performances were good but the direction too pushy and the movie (as often happens with Eastwood films) overlong, Hereafter, at two hours is all of a piece.
During the opening minutes we are treated to perhaps the most spectacular set piece to have appeared in any Eastwood film, with special effects that for a nice chance of pace were both special and realistic. Other than the initial shot of the event, as seen from above, Eastwood keeps his camera low so we're with the participants all the way. This is stunning stuff. But because it happens early in the movie and nothing else remotely comes up to this level of shock and awe, one might think that Eastwood makes a mistake by giving us something this spectacular at the beginning, rather than saving it. Not at all.
Each ensuing scene proceeds in similar fashion, whether it's a suspense scene (in the subway with the young boy and his brother's cap), a "building the relationship" scene (in the cooking school, as Howard and Damon, blindfolded, taste various foods), or a scene about love, loss and career (de France and her boss/lover, played quite well by Thierry Neuvic, talk over the "next step"), Eastwood and his cast nail it every time.
A word of praise to British screenwriter Peter Morgan, who, up to now, has given us some fine films about state, sports, politics, and people (The Queen, The Damned United, Frost/Nixon, Longford). But now he shifts gears to something otherworldly, and handles that potentially iffy material as well as possible. The afterlife is not a subject of which I am overly fond. I don't believe in it (but then how would I -- or any of us -- know?), I don't care about it (we ought to make the best of our time now, not when we're gone) and I find the amount of time that our art and culture spend on this subject rather frightful and disappointing.
And yet I loved Hereafter. Because, though it is just a movie, it takes us quite pleasurably away from the everyday and into the realm of fancy and fantasy -- while keeping us grounded by making every fanciful event, feeling and moment utterly humane. So well do we care about and understand the characters on view that we'll follow them anywhere, even into the otherworldly.
Now for the caveat: my biggest, my only gripe, really, is why Eastwood, since he has handled so much else so beautifully, could not have found some way to bring us the death/near-death experience and/or the medium's (Damon) experience of communicating with the dead without resorting to the same old clichés of white light and sudden, short appearances of fractured images of the departed.
We've seen these countless times already; surely film vocabulary is large enough to encompass a new way to show us near-death and communication with the dead? And if not, then how about just using sound effects, which in the film are very skillfully handled, so why not drop the visuals and just go with sound? Or better yet, because the acting is of such a high order, why not let the actors make the connection between the medium and his subject solely on their skillful interpretation of these moments?
Perhaps the filmmaker and his studio (the ever-obvious Warner Bros) decided that mainstream audiences would not be able to accept such subtlety (they didn’t accept the film, in any case), but you never know until you try. Meanwhile, we have so much else to savor here: Schirripa's delightful cooking classes; de France's artful ability to turn a high-level, power playing TV reporter into a vulnerable, confused young woman (compare this performance to the one she gives in Mesrine: Killer Instinct); Damon's wonderful ability to underplay for maximum emotion; Howard, with her cheery exterior, so sweet and slightly over-the-top, collapsing into sobs on the staircase; and the splendid set of twins Frankie and George McLaren, who bring such gravity and kindness to the movie.
Extras: The DVD includes a few bonus features, nothing special but worth a watch if you enjoyed the film: Tsunami! Recreating a Disaster (A note that watching scenes involving a tsunami now might seem all the more chilling in light of the disaster in Japan); Hereafter's Locations; Casting the Silent Characters; and "The Eastwood Experience."
Bookmark/Search this post with: