#18 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
For about the first two-thirds of this film, I was ready for the kind of dizzying wrap-up of three thematically connected storylines into a crescendo that lifted the whole thing up. And then, I instantly got deflated and the film never really even tried to get to where I thought it was going. Clint Eastwood said that the film was inspired by French cinema, and it’s obvious that one of the big influences was Trois Couleurs by Krzysztof Kieslowski. However, Kieslowski was always more subtle and less in need of making connections explicit than this script by Peter Morgan feels necessary. Instead of reaching highs, Hereafter ends up reaching much more modest ambitions, and that’s nice and all. However, it’s not what I feel like the potential of the first two-thirds was promising.
The film revolves around three disconnected storylines, the first being Marie Lelay (Cecile de France), a French journalist on an assignment with her partner and producer Didier (Thierry Neuvic) in India when a tsunami sweeps through the coastal town they’re staying in. She survives but only after technically dying in the wave and being brought back to life by CPR. The second is a set of twins in England, Jason and Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren), sons to a single mother with a drug problem that social services is keeping a close eye on to take the boys away from her. They cover for her in the hopes that she’ll improve, and when she sends them out to the chemist for anti-drug medication, the pair have hope. Tragically, Jason gets hit by a truck and dies on his way back. The third story revolves around a genuine psychic, George (Matt Damon), who has given up doing any readings despite to protestations of his brother Billy (Jay Mohr). He wants to move on from communing with the dead, seeing a life about death being no life at all, so he’s taken a job in a warehouse making a fraction of what he had been making as a psychic.
The three stories really are completely disconnected by any sort of mechanical or plot tissue for the first two-thirds of the film. The tsunami never gets mentioned in either of the other two. George’s psychic past never gets discovered. Marcus never reaches out to either of them, and that leaves the three stories to pursue their own paths. They were exploring this idea of how to deal with death in three different ways that reminded me of Masaki Kobayashi’s Three Loves. It was really quite wonderful.
Marie has been so shaken by her experiences that she can’t play the part of hard-edged reporter on television anymore, so Didier suggests she takes a break and writes the book on Mitterrand she had always proposed, which she begins to do. And yet, she still can’t keep her mind off of her experiences and she goes off to talk to a woman who’s been researching the hereafter in the Swiss Alps to look at her research and start writing a book about that. Marcus gets put into a foster home when his mother gets put into an institution after the death of Jason, and he does seek out psychics who all end up obvious frauds. My favorite of the three stories end sup the George story because he meets with Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) at a cooking class, and it’s his one attempt at a real human connection in years. He tries hard to hide his ability from her, but when it comes out accidentally, the nascent promise of their relationship just falls apart in real time, and it’s really sad. His knowledge of her brought on by just touching her reveals hurts so far hidden from herself that she can’t believe it, and she doesn’t even bother to show up for their final cooking class together to avoid him.
That was it. I was ready for this to come together in an unexpected, thematically focused way. It was obvious that there wasn’t going to be a ham-fisted effort to get all three in the same room, and then Marcus’ hat got knocked off his head. It was Jason’s spirit that did it, saving him from getting onto a subway train that exploded moments later, but it felt like it came from a completely different movie, a much more literal one about interactions between the real world and the afterlife where communing with the dead isn’t about emotional fulfillment but about having an invisible buddy that protects you from physical harm. It’s the only time that something like that happens in the film, which makes it stick out even more. I wouldn’t consider that point so important if it didn’t mark a larger turning point in the film towards the more literal, and the final act of the film is where all of that happens.
We skip ahead several months, and everyone converges on a large book fair in London. Marcus obviously lives there, but his foster parents take him there to meet their former foster son who has been working there as a security guard. Marie is doing a reading of her book there. George has completely abandoned his life in San Francisco after getting a severance package from the warehouse and is in England just to visit the sights, discovering that Derek Jacobi is doing a live reading of some Charles Dickens at the fair, and he’s off to go witness that. The literal connections that form between the three end up kind of mundane to a certain extent, and they’re just not that interesting or even unexpected. Marcus gets George to give him a reading where Jason gives his final message. It’s a sweet scene with some real emotion to it, I’ll happily admit, but it feels small compared to the promise of the first two-thirds of the film. George witnesses Marie’s book reading, lightly touches her hand when he gets an autograph, and sees that she is in a similar place as he is. He loses her in the crowd, and Marcus gives her the name of the hotel where she’s staying so he can write her a long note that brings them together.
It’s nice. It works on some very basic levels, and I like the ending. However, I just know that there was an ending that I would have loved somewhere in some earlier draft. Thinking back to Trois Couleurs and how the three main characters of the three films just coincidentally end up on the same boat that sinks at the end of Red, that’s the sort of limited literal connection between characters that this story seemed to be going for. They have their thematic and personal journeys that lead them to a particular place in terms of their characters, but by having the ending be all about how they fulfill each other’s lives and find each other seems to make it more Hollywood and somewhat cheapens the story.
I do like the ending in some limited ways. It’s the easy way out, essentially, and I can appreciate the effort at that level. However, getting three distinct storylines to converge thematically rather than mechanically is a much harder thing to pull off with both much higher potential highs and much lower potential lows. The choice the film does make seems like a safe, middle of the road choice.
In one way, this feels like Eastwood being as ambitious as he was in the double feature of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima in a different direction. He was trying to be European arthouse, and yet I don’t think he has the sensibilities for it. He kind of ends up between cinematic places, and his landing isn’t the most elegant thing in the world. It’s not going to appeal to people with more general tastes because the three stories are so disconnected for so long and the story is so small while the art house crowd is going to see the third act sellout. I think the film works in its own limited way, but I do wish it had fulfilled its promise in the end.