If you didn’t know it, Hereafter is Clint Eastwood’s thirty-fourth film in the director’s chair and sadly, it is mostly a cinematic train wreck from start to finish. What begins as a disaster film quickly turns into a pedestrian drama split between the lives of three people who have about as much in common as the premise does with the plot. Three everyday people touched by death. That’s it. I like Clint Eastwood, a lot actually, though it was painful to sit through this story without wondering what he was thinking. It’s not that Hereafter is a bad film, it’s far worse, operating at a level so inferior to Eastwood’s previous films like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby one might confuse Hereafter as the work of an amateur just out of film school with a rich uncle and no one to curtail the bad script from becoming a bad film.
What is most troubling about Hereafter is the choice to follow three relatively average people through the course of their average lives as they have experienced death in one fashion or another. A French Journalist survives a tsunami and is forever changed, a self-determined blue-collar American former psychic conceals himself at the C&H sugar factor in the Bay Area where he doesn’t have to touch anyone and consequently invoke his gift of connecting with their dead friends and relatives, and lastly a London boy who loses his brother and embarks on a journey to talk to him again. It all sounds like fertile ground but the narrative twists and turns are stretched thin and cumbersome, the connections left uncertain or muddied altogether until well into the second act and by that time we’ve nearly lost all interest in who these people are, much less about their predicaments. Other films have suffered from too many narrative threads, too many characters bumping around their ordinary worlds before colliding into one another for some purpose that isn’t readily clear until much later – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2006 film Babel about a married couple and the interlocking stories of four different families immediately comes to mind. It’s not that this technique cannot be accomplished successfully – consider Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). Hereafter spends too much time with the burden of ordinary and forgets along the way that we need more than reflections of our own life at the theater – we need questions about the living and the dead as much as we need answers.
Eastwood makes many mistakes throughout the film that are perhaps signs that his keen sense of story and masterful work with actors is beginning to wane. The characters in this film never break a sweat, fail to breathe in the heavy air of conflict or react in grand fashion to the events happening to them or nearby. The story purports to explore the subject of death and those left behind, of the possible connection between this world and the world or worlds that might exist beyond this one yet we never fully grasp the importance of such examination. Matt Damon seems lost as a loner who takes a cooking class to maybe meet someone or just have something to do with his hands that doesn’t involve touching anyone. However he quickly meets Bryce Dallas Howard who is there for much the same reason but their relationship is plot driven, devoid of real character development and as a result it ends far too soon to be effective. The death experiences of the other characters are no less realized, often drawn out and convoluted to the point it is challenging to care about the business of journalism from the inside out or the troubles of single mothers and dead children. All these elements make for solid starting points but they are never taken to an emotionally engaging confrontation. By the time anything interesting happens we’re pushed up against the end of the film and a rush to tie up loose ends, make eventual bed fellows of strangers, and resolve the trouble with seeing dead people and telling their stories.
Hereafter was described by someone as Eastwood’s best. I might go so far to say it is his worst but that doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to what he will do next or how he’ll change or stay the same, his cinematic language well-defined even when it fails to reach his audience.