Clint Eastwood. USA. 2010.

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“It's a pity we don't know what the little flowers know” - Gordon Bok

Octogenarian Clint Eastwood's Hereafter is an understated but deeply moving meditation on death and how it affects those left behind. Congratulations must go to Eastwood for going above and beyond the conventional to provide a film that is empowering and unforgettable, one of the finest of his career and one of the best of 2010. It is not a documentary, nor a European art film. It is a Hollywood product through and through but one with a difference. Refusing to cater to an audience that thrives on chaos and gore, Hereafter is a quiet and slow-paced film that treats every character, even the most flawed, with respect as a three-dimensional human being, not as an object used to bring in box office receipts.

Based on a screenplay by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), the subject matter deals with death but it is not maudlin in the slightest. Unlike films such as What Dreams May Come and The Lovely Bones, it is a reality-based film without colorful special effects mirroring popular conceptions of what heaven is all about. While some may not agree with its focus on spiritual mediums, Eastwood still allows us to share the pain of those who have lost a loved one and their experience that there is another dimension that transcends our five senses. 

Hereafter tells three stories. In the opening sequence, French journalist and TV personality Marie Lelay played by the outstanding French actress Cecile de France, is vacationing in a beach resort in Indonesia with her producer and boyfriend Didier (Thierry Neuvic) when she is caught in a raging tsunami that uproots buildings and trees and sweeps hundreds to their death. She suffers a concussion and has a near-death experience that transports her to a world of light, one that exists outside of space and time where she feels weightless and has visions of others crossing over after the storm. 

As a result of her experience, however, she is unable to focus when she returns to work and is compelled to take time off from broadcasting to write a biography of French politician Francois Mitterrand. What she really wants do, however, is to write a book about her near-death visions. She journeys to Europe to meet with the director of a hospice (Marthe Keller) who has documented many cases in which her patients have seen the other side. Her voyage is a lonely one, however, as her boyfriend rejects her experience as fantasy and publishers look askance at a draft of her book about life after death.

In the second story, George Lonegan, played by Matt Damon in one of his best performances, is a blue-collar worker living in San Francisco who has an unusual gift. Like spiritual mediums John Edward and James Van Praagh, he has the ability to make connections with and communicate messages from the dead. George has not done any readings for three years because he says that "a life that's all about death is no life at all," and considers his talent to be a curse rather than a gift.  Though his brother Billy (Jay Mohr) keeps pressing him to return to doing readings, George refuses, but finally agrees to do one last reading for a client of his brother. When he is laid off from his job, however, he takes an Italian cooking class and meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who hides her pain beneath a bubbly exterior. When she presses him to do a reading, he agrees but it brings back unpleasant memories for both participants and seems to validate all of his fears. 

In the third sequence, in one of the most affecting child performances that I can remember, twin brothers Jason (George McLaren) and Marcus (Frankie McLaren) live with their mother, Jackie (Lyndsey Marshal) in a London apartment. Though she loves the boys, she is addicted to drugs and is being monitored by child welfare. Jason is older by twelve minutes and is the most talkative while Marcus is quiet and withdrawn. When a sudden tragedy takes place, Marcus is sent to a foster home to try and provide a normal upbringing. The boy is obsessed with one thing, however, and that is making contact with the spirit world. In the film's only misstep, he goes to a variety of psychics who are shown as laughable charlatans instead of serious but perhaps flawed practitioners. Undaunted, he keeps up his quest, refusing to give up until he can achieve his goal of communicating with the hereafter. 

While we sense that the threads will come together, to say as some critics have done that the stories are pulled together in “a silly set of contrived coincidences” overlooks one of the key messages of the film, that synchronicity does exist, that we are all connected, and that things happen for a reason. Backed by a serenely beautiful score composed by Eastwood, the film is emotional and had me in tears, yet it is honest emotion that carefully avoids melodrama and sentimentality. Hereafter is not a perfect film and there are enough critics around to remind us of that. Yet the fact that this film was even made gives me hope that amidst the lunacy of today's world, the sense is growing slowly, in the song of Gordon Bok, that while “it's so easy in the cold to feel the darkness of the year, the world indeed may be “turning towards the morning”. 


Howard Schumann

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