By Armond White
Too bad the trailer for Hereafter doesn’t reveal how grindingly torpid this movie is. It opens with a CGI action scene in which Marie (Cécile de France), a French woman vacationing in South East Asia, is killed when her resort is swamped by a tidal wave. After she revives, the death experience leaves her freaked out. I think most viewers will experience the remaining two-plus hours as something like stillbirth.
Director Clint Eastwood stages that out-of-the-blue tsunami so that it moves like a glacier. (His F/X team devises an apocalyptic tableau in which people attempt out-running the giant wave.) Its creeping pace and gruesome details are just the beginning of Eastwood’s crushingly dull fatuousness. He gives a drab, realistic tone to the next plot strand—the central story of George (Matt Damon), a reluctant clairvoyant in San Francisco who shirks his ability to talk to the dead. Very slowly, Eastwood alternates between scenes of George’s skepticism and Marie’s bewilderment. He then adds a high-pathos third plot: Marcus (George McLaren), an inarticulate English boy who longs to communicate with his dead twin brother.
Between George’s religious doubt, Marie’s befuddlement and Marcus’ despair, Hereafter takes its characters’ spiritual confusion about what’s on the other side of life and uses it to wax sentimental about loneliness and grief. As freaky-creepy as Changeling—in which Eastwood combined mother-love with serial killing—it’s a lugubrious version of that old Saturday Night Live routine “Deep Thoughts.”
But Hereafter is really full of half-thoughts. As with Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, it’s difficult to tell if this film confronts belief or if disbelief is simply being given the upper hand. Clint and Woody are not wide-eyed, hopeful zealots; they both ridicule occult practitioners and seem to share fashionable, anti-religious cynicism. And it spreads to their misuse of actors. George’s doubt about his special ability (“It’s not a gift; it’s a curse!”) merely seems ornery; playing a common, blue-collar man’s crisis of faith brings out the most condescending acting of Damon’s career so far. Marie’s career woman chic recalls Julie Christie’s exotic alertness, yet every scene knocks her about physically or emotionally punishes de France’s beauty. Little Marcus must be the saddest- looking child in the history of movies: He has droopy eyes and a perpetual pallor. There’s no spark of childhood sensitivity or longing; McLaren simply mopes.
Pretending profundity, Eastwood piles on bleak thoughts. His solemn heavy-handed method is so artless and inexpressive it’s almost primitive. The English twin brother’s death scene repeats the same crane-rising camera movement and forlorn look to the sky that turned Mystic River’s funeral scene into a joke. Eastwood’s self-composed tinkly piano score (not subtle, just amateurish) embarrassingly accompanies Marcus’ separation from his drug-addict mom. Scenes of Marie’s adultery with her married TV producer (Thierry Neuvic) imply a moral judgment, yet Peter Morgan’s script neglects her spiritual awakening; she’s more lost than ever—until a depressed cupid effects a hoary Hollywood ending. All these calculated convergences—showing everyone’s common fate—suggests Claude Lelouch without charm.
There’s no mystical quality to Eastwood’s drab depiction of spiritual searching—its emptiness is deliberate. Despite the global storyline, Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern make Asia, England, France and America all glum-looking. It’s that unvaried, bland realism of Eastwood’s other hackneyed, unimaginative films (especially the war diptych Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima); that same green-plus-shadow visual scheme: color photography so lackluster it looks black and white. Only the brief opening shot, containing the image of a pink tropical flower, has any bit of liveliness. Eastwood’s such an unimaginative hack, in love with his own obstinacy, that he keeps this pretense at exploring higher consciousness horror-movie dark.
Have critics forgotten everything they valued in movies—pace, beauty, cogency, feeling—when it comes to Eastwood? Treating this dirge as a profound event demonstrates the cinema establishment’s willingness to stunt their own expectations and dreams by accepting Eastwood’s paltry clichés, his secular piety. George’s visions, like Marie’s experience of the afterlife, resemble cartoon metaphysics: bright light clouded by fuzzy silhouettes. It looks like a Ron Howard imitation of Spielberg. Given a subject that should be thrilling and full of awe, Hereafter is cornball whenever it isn’t plain dull.
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Runtime: 129 min.
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