Holding tight to his instincts, director Clint Eastwood has fashioned a relentlessly low-key discussion of heavenly mysteries with "Hereafter." Shunning a grandly scaled march into the unknown, Eastwood sticks to what he knows best: soft approach, acoustic scoring, and introspective performances. Those weaned on "The Ghost Whisperer" or "The Dead Zone" will be greeted with a particular absence of zeal, but fans keyed into Eastwood's gentle past work might be more inclined to sit back and allow the filmmaker to find his own way, even if that means a few melodramatic rough patches and a bizarrely pat ending.
In San Francisco, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a retired psychic with an exceptional gift, forever weary of the attention it brings him. While his opportunistic brother (Jay Mohr) pushes him to exploit his abilities for money, George craves a more peaceful life, finding promise in a flirtation with his cooking class partner, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard). In Paris, Marie Lelay (Cecile de France, "High Tension") is a journalist who endured a near-death experience while on assignment in Thailand. Returning home, she can't quite put her life back together, haunted by her visions, compelled to assemble them in a book. In London, young twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren, great faces but dreadful child actors) are a devoted pair, soon separated by death, leaving Marcus with critical questions about the afterlife that cannot be answered through religion and charlatans.
"Hereafter" comes to home video via a screenplay by celebrated writer Peter Morgan, author of "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon," which provides a certain refinement not typically afforded to such spiritual encounters. Unfortunately, the screenplay handles like unfinished business from a writer who traditionally employs tight dramatic corners. Here is a tale of questioning and loneliness, with the afterlife a common thread laced through three stories of varying stages of enlightenment; yet, there's an airy, unfocused quality to the structure that makes it emotionally frigid, missing a sustained note of bereavement for loved ones and life itself, as George cocoons himself inside his solitude, knowing exactly how his gift will be received by any potential mate.
Morgan's pages resemble a rough draft in desperate need of polishing, yet Eastwood carries the material with typical steadiness (assisted by Tom Stern's magnificent cinematography). Appealing to his compassionate sensibilities, Eastwood finds a few grace notes along the way to keep the viewer engrossed in these characters, finding a lovely tempo of courtship between George and Melanie (who enjoy a food-based sensuality), and a delicate read of grief from Marcus, who's on the hunt for impossible answers. Little tender moments tend to count the most in "Hereafter," blessedly keeping away from hysteria to stew in the infinite unknown.
Everything in the film is noncommittal, preferring to step away and observe than push some type of spirit world agenda. "Hereafter" is masterful at wandering around, endeavoring to yank the three stories together in unusual ways, but I found myself rooting for the characters to remain apart. The personalities are far more tragic and interesting as individuals, required to interact with a judgmental world they've lost interest in. Creating a magically fateful lasso only reinforces how little tension there is here to appreciate, with the climax of the film coming across crushingly artificial, despite admirable performances from Damon and de France.
"Hereafter" is shot with a definite lean toward deep blacks, communicating clouded characters and evening environments. The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation maintains a rich hold on the shadow detail, with a crisp view of dark textures and nighttime encounters. When the film moves to daytime events, color makes a confident impression, with greens and blues popping nicely, though the film generally shies away from overt splashes of jubilant hues. Skintones are natural and approachable, while clarity is superb, presenting the events with substantial attention to facial response and set design nuance (detail on hair is especially appealing), though some of the best images are found during the film's darkest moments.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix on the BD only features a few moments of ample HD activity, most contained to the larger set pieces, which register full and convincing (incidents with water are quite realistic), providing a low-end rumble to underscore the suspense. The rest of the film is regulated to conversations, which retain a soft, crisp appeal, making exposition easy to understand, which keeping the picture's fragile dramatic intent alive. Scoring has a presence, feeling out the surrounds until it's called upon to make an emotional impression. Directionals are graceful for more atmospheric locations, with crowds and street sounds contributing to a feeling of life without overcrowding the action. A French track is also included.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
"Tsunami! Recreating a Disaster" (6:33) spotlights the VFX effort to turn a location into a horrific disaster experience, with special attention paid to realism. The featurette also covers studio work, displaying the actors performing in a greenscreen pool.
"Is There Life After Death?" (3:58) speaks to the cast and crew, polling the team for their thoughts on the afterlife and how that questioning informed the screenplay.
"Clint on Casting" (7:23) sits down with the world famous filmmaker to discuss how the actors came to the project and what they brought to picture's tone. Seeing Eastwood on set mingling with the actors is interesting to watch, making the featurette quite valuable.
"Delving into 'Hereafter'" (6:00) chats up mediums and parapsychologists for their thoughts on the film's themes and their own professional reality.
"Twin Bonding" (5:53) highlights the mysteries and reality of identical twins, interviewing a few pairs (including producer Kathleen Kennedy and her sister Connie) for their experiences, exploring the nature of the relationships and the inherent complications. "Hereafter" twins George and Frankie McLaren are also chatted up on set.
"French Speaking French" (1:45) briefly explores screenwriter Peter Morgan's demand that his characters speak their natural language, thus introducing realism.
"Casting the Silent Characters" (3:03) travels around the globe to soak up the various locations that permitted the film its special international flavor. Time around the Pacific Ocean even encouraged Eastwood into the water to direct.
"The Eastwood Experience" (4:17) heads back to the cast and crew, who share their thoughts on working for the icon and how his idiosyncratic directorial style rubbed off on the production.
"The Eastwood Factor (Extended Edition)" (88:27) is a 2010 documentary from film critic Richard Schickel (narrated by Morgan Freeman), exploring the life and times of the Hollywood legend, who traces his career from television bit parts to silver screen dominance. Interviews with Eastwood lead the charge, with oodles of clips, anecdotes, and the sheer expanse of time able to fill out this journey through a most extraordinary filmmaking career.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Despite the presence of some volatile special effects depicting natural and man-made disasters, "Hereafter" is best still and blue, considering the afterlife from three different perspectives. Perhaps it's not an enlightening journey, but Eastwood manages to stretch the longing into something moderately poignant, standing a few frustrating steps away from profound.