In the hands of a different filmmaker, the supernatural film Hereafter might have been a tricky suspense (M. Night Shyamalan), a globe-spanning referendum on the World in Which We Live (Alejandro González Iñárritu), a romantic misadventure with literary flourishes (Nora Ephron), or a scenery-chewing drama (Steven Spielberg). As it is, Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood, is a classy, low-key affair that manages to be sad, funny, sweet, and real. The film draws considerable strength from an oxidizing feeling of melancholy that slowly rusts out until all that's left is hope.
George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a psychic who can communicate with the dead. All he has to do is touch someone and he can talk with their dearest departed loved ones, passing on essential messages such as "It's time to move on" and "Forgive me."
George's bona fides are confirmed for the audience — he's no charlatan. When he does readings, he's not asking people if what he says is true, he's telling them. But at the film's outset, he's voluntarily retired. George once made a lot of money reading people, but the toll to his personal life was too great.
George longs for contact with the living. A girlfriend would be nice. That's why he signs up for an adult education class on Italian cuisine. That's where he meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard). Through a series of scenes that are casually charming and, let's face it, kinda hot, George and Melanie develop a relationship that's disarmingly simple and poignant.
But that's just one third of the movie. In another slice we follow Marie LeLay (Cécile De France), a French journalist in Indonesia when the 2004 tsunami hits. Marie is killed — briefly — by the wave surge. She's resuscitated, but while she's technically dead, she sees a vision of white light and a multitude of ghostly figures. She can't make out any of the faces in the crowd.
Back in Paris, Marie struggles with what she has experienced, and when she tells people, they worry about her mental health. She takes a sabbatical to write and is drawn to the science behind her visions.
The final plot looks at Londoner twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie/George McLaren, playing the roles). When Jason dies, Marcus is left to fill the void. His attempts to reconnect with his brother lead him to religion, pseudoscience, and pure hucksterism. The kid has a good BS detector.
Eastwood pushes the script, by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), toward the mundanity of death. Conversations Marie and Marcus have on the afterlife don't have the hushed breath of mortals feeling the cold touch of death nearby. That's because they, like most, can't feel anything. The film's approach leads to a quietly compelling scene where a couple talks about what happens after we die, with cheery background music undercutting what might otherwise shiver with import.
Death is what makes us each alone, Hereafter proposes, and is what compels us to find meaningful human interaction while we're alive. An empty bed, a solitary man standing still in a doorway — these are the images that drive the film. We grapple for each other in the vacuum of loss that is the mortal condition.
Opening Friday, October 22nd