It doesn't pretend to have any answers to the mysteries of life and death, but Hereafter (2010), directed by Clint Eastwood, is intriguing viewing anyway, at times an insightful and moving but mostly atmospheric and character-driven triptych of unrelated stories that intersect near the end. The film was co-produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon).
I confess to watching this with considerable trepidation. I'd heard about the opening sequence, a CGI extravaganza realistically recreating the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Were it not directed by Eastwood, I probably would have skipped Hereafter altogether given Hollywood's and the news media's insatiable obsession with disaster porn. Then the Blu-ray arrived at my doorstep just 18 hours after another unimaginably huge tsunami struck Japan, my home since 2003. (I live in Kyoto, a city largely unaffected by the various disasters.) After a week of dawn-to-dusk news coverage, did I really want to watch this?
(Hereafter had been playing Japanese movie theaters when the real tsunami hit. Think of it: probably somewhere in the disaster zone patrons attended an early show of the film and its tsunami only to encounter the real thing later that afternoon. Warner Bros. wisely pulled the film from theaters immediately after the earthquake and Eastwood has pledged about $1 million from its DVD sales.)
The Blu-ray disc, which includes both a DVD and digital copy of the movie, looks and sounds great, and the extra features include a feature length documentary about his long career at Warner Bros., The Eastwood Factor. Written and directed by Richard Schickel, it's extremely poor especially considering the veteran critic's access to both Eastwood and Warner's archives and use of its film clips, but the clips themselves are mostly in high-def, and some of Eastwood's comments are interesting.
French television journalist Marie Lelay (Cécile de France) and her lover, Didier (Thierry Neuvic), also her television producer, are vacationing in Thailand. She goes shopping to buy souvenirs for his children when the tsunami comes ashore. Swept up in the torrest of water, she has a near-death experience complete with white light and visions of silhouetted human figures. Survivors pull her from the water and though she first appears to be dead eventually she regains consciousness.
Marie resumes her duties as host of a popular public affairs program, but gradually becomes obsessed with her near-death experience, and in wanting to write a book about it risks her credibility as a respected journalist (and glamorous media personality with lucrative commercial endorsements).
In San Francisco, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a factory worker who two years before gave up a profitable career as a psychic. No charlatan, George's ability to communicate with the dead is genuine, apparently the result of childhood encephalitis and near-death experiences on the operating table. This ability is demonstrated in a clever first scene where he very reluctantly gives a reading. Though George's brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), wants him to cash in on this gift, George regards it as a curse. Faced with layoffs at the factory, George enrolls in an adult-education cooking class where he's paried with a young woman new to San Francisco, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Meanwhile, in England, 12-year-old twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren)* care for their alcohol- and heroin-addicted mother, Jackie (Lyndsey Marshal). On his way home after picking up detox medicine on her behalf Jason, the more assertive and protective of the two boys, is mugged by teenagers and as he flees is struck and killed by a delivery van. Marcus, profoundly lonely and because of his mother's personal problems forced into foster care, steals money from his new foster parents in search of a psychic that can communicate with his beloved brother.
Hereafter shows characters grappling with profound, life-changing events but the movie itself isn't profound, rather more a moody study of three unusual people facing head-on universal issues of mortality and a possible afterlife. George, surprisingly well played by Damon, has a talent that only draws desperately unhappy people unable to cope with their loss. Who wants a life besieged by such raw emotion? Marie wants to write about her experience, only to discover that even a book written by a major television celebrity such as herself would be relegated to a niche market of conspiracy theorists and UFO watchers. Marcus searches for a means to communicate with his dead brother only to waste time and money on a parade of crooks and crackpots.
Structurally, Hereafter reminded me a lot of Kei Kumai's Deep River (1994), which likewise tells three unrelated stories of people traveling in this case to India in search of some kind of similarly spiritual release. (In one story, for instance, a widower believes a young Indian girl may be the reincarnation of his late wife.) Another interesting aspect of the film is how always, even around the edges, there are early-21st century signs of a doomed planet inching toward annihilation: Marie interviews a CEO whose corporation is embroiled in a Third World child labor scandal, Jason and Markus's mother is a drug addict, one character is the victim of sexual abuse. George escapes his troubles listening to book-on-tape readings of Dickens, but novels like David Copperfield, with its debtors prisons, beatings, etc., only imply that the modern but inhumane 21st century world is turning back into a middle-19th century one.
Except for that opening tsunami sequence the film has an appealingly understated style. Even though he was hired relatively late in its development (unlike most of the films he's directed), stylistically Eastwood's stamp is all over the film and, typical of his dramas, the acting is unusually and universally good.
This pays off in several scenes. George's reluctant reading of a distraught widower (Richard Kind) is cleverly written to sell the audience that his psychic powers are genuine. This scene and a later one where George explains his abilities to Melanie have real dramatic verisimilitude. In a sense, it's all a set-up for the climax of the film when George is compelled to do one last reading, which because of the methodical build-up is quite moving.
As for the tsunami sequence, for me its impact was lessened somewhat by having watched the same thing for real on Japanese television the past week. It's horrifying and expertly done, but then again we expect that from a big-budget Hollywood movie. More admirable is that Eastwood only shows what's necessary dramatically and no more. At no point does he exploit that unimaginable tragedy with gratuitous "money shots." Good for him.
Besides directing Eastwood is also credited with the film's lovely score, mostly for solo piano. Also worth noting is Joel Cox's superb editing and Tom Stern's moody cinematography. Near the end one of Britain's great actors makes a highly amusing - and, again, dramatically justified - cameo appearance as himself, somewhat reminiscent of Peter Falk's role in Wim Wenders Wings of Desire.
Video & Audio
Chiefly filmed in 35mm Panavision, Hereafter is a very handsome film, with generally dark and atmospheric locations in Paris, London, and San Francisco that are decidedly, refreshingly un-touristy. (The pre-tsunami Thailand scenes, actually filmed in Hawaii, are the only bright and glamorous ones in the film, an ironic touch.) Unlike most Warner Home Video titles, this did not default to Japanese language options on my Japanese PlayStation 3, but rather offered the same options as those in America. The excellent DTS-HD Master Audio predictably booms to life during the tsunami sequence and a later scene in a London subway station, while the mostly gentler moments, accentuated with Eastwood's piano score, are in their way equally impressive. A Dolby Digital 5.1 French track is included, along with English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. Those with projection players take note: there's extensive use of English subtitles in all the French scenes, and the accompanying two-line subtitles run off below the frame line.
The main supplement is big and visually impressive but hugely disappointing. The Eastwood Factor was written and directed by film critic (and Eastwood biographer) Richard Schickel, who was given access to Eastwood, the Warner lot and its various archives, and seemingly unrestricted use of Warner-owned film clips and stills. Given that and the show's obviously healthy budget, this 129-minute "extended version" is a real dud: a meandering clip show with about as much information and insight as the back cover text of the average DVD.
Described as "covering [Eastwood's] 35+-year association with Warner Bros.," in fact it's little more than a lazy career overview with almost nothing to say about Eastwood's long but non-exclusive and occasionally rocky partnership, better covered in Marc Eliot's excellent American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood. Most of the running time is eaten up with slapped-together, overly familiar highlights from Eastwood's Warner-owned films, with the actor-director adding a few general comments here and there.
The program is very badly organized. For instance, for no clear reason there are snippets from White Heat with James Cagney and Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Humphrey Bogart. Eastwood doesn't cite either as a major influence. Rather, it looks like Schickel just wanted to toss those scenes in; Eastwood's unilluminating remarks are along the lines of "Yeah. Bogart. He was good." Yeah, so what? Other footage, such as highlights from Eastwood's lowbrow comedy Every Which Way But Loose is put into almost no historical/cultural/career context at all.
The only plus is that the film clips, about 90% sourced from high-def masters, look fantastic, including quite a few titles not yet released to Blu-ray (White Heat, Bronco Billy, etc.)
"Step into the Hereafter" is a nine-part behind the scenes documentary, also accessible and interactive run in tandem with the film - though why anyone would want to watch it that way is beyond me. Eastwood appears on camera to discuss the film's particulars and, for value-added fluff, these featurettes are generally well done.
Though not at the high-water mark of Eastwood's best films as director (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Bronco Billy, and maybe The Outlaw Josey Wales, in that order) Hereafter is never less than extremely interesting, and Highly Recommended.
* The credits don't distinguish who played each role, suggesting perhaps that each of the two young actors may have played both parts.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.