'Hereafter': Clint Eastwood's Look at the Afterlife

Courtesy of Warner Bros

Clint Eastwood flirted with the supernatural in his allegorical Western Pale Rider, but nothing in his career prepares us for his haunting and haunted Hereafter, a bold, strange, problematic investigation into the nature of the afterlife. At 80, he continues to throw us curves, abandoning the safety of genre for an unconventionally structured story about mortality, loneliness, and the relationship between the living and the dead.

Just to further mix things up, Eastwood opens his movie with the most spectacular action sequence he's ever mounted—a terrifying tsunami wreaking havoc on a tropical island that would be the crowning achievement of any epic disaster movie. Here it's more a stunning feat of misdirection, for the tale that follows is intimate and often hushed.

Caught in the tsunami is the first of the three characters whose fates Hereafter follows, a French television host (Cécile De France) who dies in the storm and then miraculously comes back to life. But her glimpse of the beyond makes it impossible for her to reenter her old life as a Parisian celebrity; instead, she becomes obsessed with writing a book about the eerily similar after-death experiences others have endured, a pursuit that costs her credibility in the eyes of her sophisticated friends. As her unhappy publisher notes, it's a topic more suited to the American market.

The second strand in Peter Morgan's screenplay concerns George (Matt Damon), a reclusive psychic who can communicate with the dead—a gift he's come to regard as a curse. Though his ambitious brother (Jay Mohr) wants him to parlay this talent into a fortune, George has withdrawn into a blue-collar job and a solitary existence in San Francisco.

We are then transported to London, where a tragic accident separates young London school-boy Marcus (Frankie McLaren) from his beloved twin brother. Desperately lonely, and packed off to foster parents when his junkie mother goes into rehab, Marcus tries every quack telepathist in London, searching for a way to connect to his lost sibling.

This material couldn't be further from the reality-inspired political dramas (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) that made Morgan's name. Much of the movie's tension comes from wondering how these three stories are going to connect, but Morgan's plot mechanics—which grind all too noisily in the London section of the story, and serve up a tidy finale that seems oddly beside the point—are not the film's real strength. What keeps us rapt are the mysterious and provocative questions Hereafter raises, questions that Eastwood and Morgan know can't be definitively answered.

Clearly, at this point in his life, questions of mortality aren't far from Eastwood's mind, and you can feel his identification with these characters, whose encounters with death both separate them from the rest of the living and give them a sense of urgent purpose. Damon, with his understated but deeply felt performance, and the wonderfully versatile De France supply the movie's aching soul. And Eastwood keeps it honest. Hereafter confronts a topic that could have descended into mawkish, mystical hokum, but not in Eastwood's no-nonsense, uncynical hands. He looks at death, and beyond, with clear, open, inquisitive eyes.