There are reminders of mortality throughout "Hereafter," Clint Eastwood's gentle, thoughtful film about the fragility of life and the promise of a life beyond.
There are the cut flowers that are in sight whenever George, a reluctant psychic, feels the stirrings of romance; the blooms are beautiful but they won't last. There are the references to Charles Dickens, who wrote novels overflowing with life but is remembered best for a ghost story. There's the cap that young Marcus wears to console himself after his identical twin's death.
There are advertising posters featuring French TV journalist Marie, whose image vanishes when a fresher face arrives on the scene. The story Eastwood tells here is about transience and how we deal with it, by finding hope in the present world or faith in an afterlife.
For a film that opens with a thrillingly realized tsunami ripping part a tropical resort, and that makes key plot points of accidental death and mass murder, "Hereafter" is remarkably serene.
The tidal wave that nearly drowns vacationing Marie gives her a near-death vision of another world as she hovers in still water, eye-to-eye with a child's comforting stuffed bear. The experience is half gift, half curse. Marie returns to her glamorous, high-pressure job in Paris, but she's been irrevocably changed. She drifts away from that lucrative life and her social circle to research what it was that she glimpsed. The material comforts of her life are threatened, but she can't stop moving toward that white light she has seen.
George, a genuine psychic, views his ability to contact the dead as an affliction. It began in a childhood disease and has infected every one of his relationships. By touching people's hands, he can see their lost loved ones and learn secrets better left undisturbed. His brother wants George to exploit his skill. George, working as a San Francisco forklift driver, just wants peace, solitude and anonymity.
Marcus, a London schoolboy unable to work through his grief after his twin dies, visits charlatans whose hokum even he can easily see through. Fate brings the three characters together in a way that offers each one satisfaction.
By bringing questions of eternal life into a realistic contemporary world, "Hereafter" may raise issues of credibility for some viewers. The script -- by "The Queen's" Peter Morgan -- makes a pass at answering these objections by introducing a rigorously scientific researcher who endorses the concept. That's really not needed. The film works best as a meditation on the way humans embrace or reject the finality of death.
In one scene a publishing house buzzes with excitement over Marie's proposed biography of the late French President François Mitterrand. Later, these stuffy French rationalists are appalled when she wants to change the project to a book about the reality of an afterlife. The editors are happy to write about the dead, but the game-changing idea that the dead are still with us is too radical and frightening for them.
The film is nicely acted, with Cecile de France as the inquisitive Marie, Matt Damon troubled and solemn as George, and George and Frankie McLaren playing the shy Marcus and his outspoken twin, Jason. The real star of the show, however, is Eastwood, who takes on a subject that could provoke incredulous laughter and handles it with intelligence and restraint.
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