When Clint Eastwood's Hereafter ended the other night at its prerelease screening, with the camera pulling up and away from a beamy Matt Damon and Cécile de France, there were bursts of applause. But there were also gripes among the crowd that the film was "draggy," slow. And who knows what the more-than-a-few folks exiting intermittently throughout had thought? Well, not hard to guess.
Which is to say that Hereafter, an uncharacteristically sweet, loping, and meditative film from the 80-year-old, busier-than-ever director, isn't going to please everyone. With its wispy strands of guitar music, its Shyamalanesque visions of the afterlife (blurry figures bathed in white light), and a performance from Damon that's muted, to say the least, the film is startling - mostly for the fact that this quiet cogitation on death comes from Eastwood.
It's as if the cussin' blue-collar retiree of Gran Torino accidentally found himself at a Kieslowski retrospective, and was moved to the core by the late Polish auteur's reflections on fate and finality, interconnecting lives, the mystery of it all. Heck, de France's character, a French TV journalist named Marie, even has posters of herself plastered around Paris - just like Irène Jacob's fashion model did (in Geneva) in Kieslowski's Red.
Of course, Hereafter wasn't written by Eastwood. The screenplay is the work of Peter Morgan, diverging from his typical fare - politically and biographically based projects like The Queen and Frost/Nixon. Maybe he's the one boning up on Kieslowski.
But no matter.
Opening on some unnamed Indonesian beach resort, where Marie and her TV producer lover (Thierry Neuvic) have been resort-ing, Hereafter begins with a Spielberg-scale disaster: a tsunami, freakishly rising from the tranquil waves and flooding the streets, taking out cars and shops and hundreds of thousands of people. Marie is one of them, trying valiantly to save a young girl, and drowning in the effort, in the watery tumult.
She dies. We see that. And then, thanks to two bystanders, she's revived. She returns to Paris, and to work on the news show, but nothing is the same. Her experience has changed her. De France, recently seen in the French gangster bio Mesrine, plays this profoundly shaken soul with a beautiful reticence.
Marie represents one thread of Hereafter's story. Twin brothers, boys named Marcus and Jason (the terrific Frankie and George McLaren), are another. They live in London with their drug-addict mom, and a death throws this already traumatized family into grief and loss.
And in San Francisco, George Lonegan (Damon) has struggles of his own: He is, truly, psychic; if he touches someone, he can see into their soul, and see the lovers or the kin they have lost. "It's not a gift," George tells his brother (Jay Mohr), eager to capitalize on his sibling's unique skills. "It's a curse. I feel like a freak."
Hereafter loops back and forth from Paris to London to San Francisco, from Marie to Marcus to George, and we know, somehow, that the paths of these strangers will cross.
Along the way, Derek Jacobi makes an appearance (as himself). The genius that was Charles Dickens is celebrated. Marthe Keller, as a doctor dealing with the paranormal, or the supernatural, or just the endgame of life, makes a kind of silly cameo. And George takes a cooking class, where he meets a bubbly transplant from Pittsburgh (Bryce Dallas Howard), engaging in a bit of culinary foreplay, with the promise of pastas to come.
If Hereafter is about death - and it certainly is ("What do you think happens when we die?" wonders de France) - it is also about life, and the connections people make. In that way, Eastwood and Morgan's movie, with its epic natural disasters (and a terrifying, man-made one) is optimistic. Hokey, even. But it's beautiful, too.