Dir: Clint Eastwood

Rating: 2.0/5.0

Warner Bros.

126 Minutes

There’s an early scene in Hereafter in which Matt Damon’s angsty supernatural psychic George Lonegan, at the behest of his brother Billy (Jay Mohr), performs a reading for one of Billy’s clients despite George’s insistence that he’s retired from the lucrative business of communicating with the dead. The client is played by Richard Kind, whose last major live-action role was the couch-dwelling, theorizing slob of a brother in A Serious Man. Immediately, I thought: I wish the Coen Brothers directed this.

What I’m getting at is not fanboy fantasy casting, but that a film like Hereafter needed someone at the helm who could handle tone in a way that the director of Space Cowboys cannot; one that does not equate happiness with sunny days. Director Clint Eastwood, aided and abetted by cinematographer Tom Stern, renders the world of Hereafter as one of oppressive grays and dark shadows. Because, you see, this is serious business and everyone in this film is very sad.

But even Eastwood can surprise. The film crams in two real-life disasters – the South Pacific tsunami that proved one of the main selling points of the trailer and a train bombing – into the film. The former, which I was dreading, actually turned out fairly well, especially for a director who tends to eschew major special effects work in his movies. The camera floats with the current as it and our characters are jostled this way and that way, making for a shockingly visceral sequence. The train bombing is less successful, happening at such a sudden, random time that it’s laugh-worthy (see: Brazil, Terry Gilliam, 1985).

Hereafter is best when it leaves the screenplay the hell alone, partially because Eastwood’s manipulative, showy but ultimately empty style doesn’t befit Peter Morgan’s subtle, mostly character-driven script. When a character dies in the streets, the overhead camera slowly zooms out as people crowd around the body and the music swells, a rehash of the equally awful shot in Eastwood’s maudlin, pompous Mystic River where every cop in Boston tackles a wailing, unintelligible Sean Penn.

Morgan, who adapted his own stage play Frost/Nixon into a riveting screenplay that earned Ron Howard a bit of artistic merit between Dan Brown adaptations, wrote Hereafter on spec – one of his few scripts not based on prior material or a true story. As such, we see the grounded screenwriter forcing himself to be cinematic, with two major set pieces and three Crash-like narrative threads that you know are going to collide. This time, it happens to be at a book fair, which should tell you that Hereafter is actually more grounded than the trailers make it out to be, and for that we should be thankful. It is not a spiritual disaster thriller where only Matt Damon’s ability to talk to the dead can save us.

Much of the film is character interaction, which Morgan is unsurprisingly adept at. Like some of his previous scripts, he injects natural humor into the proceedings, showing an understanding of life even in a film about people’s obsession with the afterlife — a vital element that Eastwood’s somber production doesn’t exactly show an understanding of. Ever the playwright, he lets scenes go on longer than rules from screenwriting books would allow, and they’re often quite engaging despite some stumbles. George announces repeatedly that his abilities aren’t a gift but a curse (© 1961 Marvel Comics) but Morgan’s script lets him tell his origin story without impeding flashbacks so that the audience can just hang onto his words.

Hereafter is another entry in the ongoing case study of potentially great scripts botched by productions. While, under someone else’s direction, it could have been a decent character study and a meditation on people’s obsession with an after life. As it is, we have to settle for Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter: a deeply flawed film, but not as terrible as it could have been.

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