What's he's really tackling here is how hard it is to wrap our heads around the finality of death
Clint Eastwood is 80. Even if he’s in feeling in the pink physically, he has to be spending a little time thinking about what comes next.
If anything.Based on “Hereafter,” which looks at just that question, Eastwood seems to be saying it’s the here and now that really matters and we better all make the most of it.
“Hereafter” is about death — or, more accurately, living with an understanding of death’s inevitability. Of course, this is not a topic that most mainstream American movies are willing to take on, so it’s no wonder it’s being marketed as a sort of supernatural thriller.
No, when it comes to heaven, most movies are more comfortable with either a comedic or benign concept of an afterlife. Friendly angels abound in films — think of 1941’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” which was remade in 1978 with Warren Beatty as “Heaven Can Wait,” and again in 1991 with Chris Rock as “Down to Earth.” These angels cheerfully show a newly dead person the ropes to eternal life or, more often, help them figure out a way to return to the living.
As for heaven itself, it used to be depicted mostly as a paradise where angels wear halos and pluckon harps amidst fluffy, cotton candy clouds. For the most egregious example of the latter, there’s the racially offensive scene from 1934’s “Wonder Bar,” where Al Jolson, in blackface, cavorts about in a heaven where pork chops grow on trees and chorus girls, also in blackface, frolic holding giant slices of watermelon.
By the late 20th century, heaven had morphed into a sterile, over-lit white space. And now, thanks to special effects, it’s become a brightly colored, ever-changing screensaver. In 1998’s “What Dreams May Come,” Robin Williams died and found himself walking in neon flowering fields; and in last year’s “The Lovely Bones,” the murdered adolescent girl was seen in an ever-evolving, margharita-bright paradse.
Even Steven Spielberg, the ultimate sentimentalist, couldn't resist heavenly visions. When he showed the Great Beyond in 1989’s “Always” (itself a remake of 1943’s “A Guy Named Joe”), his glimpse of heaven offered a misty forest and Audrey Hepburn — it was her final film –as the most chic angel ever, dressed in a slouchy white cotton sweater and slim pants.
Except heaven isn’t what interests Eastwood in “Hereafter,” nor is Hell — which has had its own frequent depictions on film. What he’s tackling here is how hard it is to wrap our heads around the finality of death.
Based on a screenplay by Peter Morgan (“The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon”), “Hereafter” begins with a rush, literally. Marie (Cécile de France, whose fabulous haircut deserves billing of its own), a French television journalist, is caught in a deadly tsunami while on vacation in the tropics. (The special effects are excellent.) She nearly dies — she sees blinding white light and shadowy figures — and finds herself still shaken by the experience long after she returns to Paris and tries to resume her job.
The movie’s two other main characters are Marcus (Frankie McLaren), who lives in London, and George (Matt Damon), who’s in San Francisco. Marcus is a young boy whose twin brother dies, leaving him bereft. George is an apparently authentic psychic in San Francisco who has given up his practice. “It’s not a gift, it’s a burden,” he tells his brother. He could no longer deal with the extreme emotional pain of the desperate people who sought him out in hopes of reaching a dead loved one.
Eastwood switches among these three, establishing their characters with firm strokes and making us care what happens to them. And like any film Eastwood directs, it is photographed and edited with smooth efficiency (shots last exactly as long as they need to, no more), focuses absorbingly on its characters and is about the human capacity both for hurt and to connect with each other.
Unfortunately, when the plot eventually brings all three together, Eastwood does it rather clumsily, making the film’s resolution a little hasty and unsatisfying. Then again, as I mulled it over afterward, I’m not sure what a better ending would have been.
While “Hereafter” may not be Eastwood working at the very top of his game (that would be “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby”), it’s still a pleasure to watch.
It draws you in, it respects the viewer’s intelligence and it doesn’t pander. And that, compared to most of what’s out in multiplexes today, is close enough to heaven to warrant the price of a ticket.