After eight decades of life on Earth, Eastwood understands a thing or two about fragile, contradictory human beings. He has served our purpose for many years as the vigilante, fighting justice when the law lets us down. He now remains, in his 80th year, the fading archetype for the American male film director. Although he can still call himself an elder in the tribe – a silverback with his pick of the available women, a Da Vinci with an array of talents, many feel he’s been slipping lately. Gran Torino, Changeling and now, Hereafter all seem to be not the stuff young bloggers build a dream on. This is a film that was snickered at in Toronto, yet is arguably one of Eastwood’s best.¬†¬† Whatever myths we have heaped upon him over the past thirty or forty or fifty or sixty years, he’s lived up to them. And then some. In his later years, he is ruminating on bigger questions, like what it means to be alive, to be killed, to be loved – to die, and to mourn.¬† But it seems that’s not quite the Eastwood they wanted.
The less noticeable thing about Eastwood as a director is that he’s a father several times over. While fatherhood is not an obvious theme in Eastwood’s films, childhood certainly is. Hereafter fits in to a triptych of films that meditate on childhood and loss: Mystic River, Changeling and now, Hereafter. In each film, there is a sense of children losing someone or something significant. Or of people losing children they can’t bear to live without. The natural progression from there is the hereafter, life after death.
Hereafter looks at the lives of three main characters – each of them dwelling in a place of what seems like death. A near-death experience, a death of a twin brother and the ability to touch people and see the ghosts they carry with them are the three intersecting through-lines in Morgan’s script. What seems on the surface like a “supernatural thriller” is really not anything at all having to do with the mystical. Rather, it is a precise insight to the very thing that just might define the soul: imprints of others that live within us.
Hereafter is a film that befits Eastwood’s outlook on life, or seems to anyway. It doesn’t preach a Christian God looking out for his chosen disciples, let into Heaven because they believe in Him. All the same it is a film that decides to address the afterlife, or at least, our perceptions of it. It manages this without giving answers. What Matt Damon’s character is can be open to interpretation. You can decide, as many of the characters do, that he’s someone who can talk to the dead. All it takes is a touch of the hands to “make a connection” and suddenly he’s got a conversation with a recently departed spirit. Our cinematic reference catalogue tells us that this means there really are spirits hovering around us at all times. It means that we are watched over by those we loved so deeply.
But is that really what the film is about? It wouldn’t be a very good film if that were the case. It would be okay but too easy, and not worthy of Peter Morgan or Clint Eastwood’s time. This is the starting point. Wondering what it is about is your job. And like faith, and life – you get to decide what you want to believe because there is no proof. All Matt Damon’s character is doing, really, is communicating with something – is it a spirit? Is it a part of your own mind?
I have chosen to see the film this way. Being neither religious nor particularly inclined to believe in the afterlife, ghosts or heaven, I saw Hereafter an an earthly tale about someone who is perhaps more insightful than others, someone who can pick up on a frequency that is there but is buried by most of us. Why is it buried? Because we couldn’t survive for very long if we knew the haunting pain of others. Matt Damon as George Lonegan barely survives it. He is trying to get out of the business of being a paid psychic but no one wants him to quit. The money is too good. How many of us ache for the ability to contact someone we loved who died?
As a mother I can imagine what it would feel like to have to live with the hollowed out hole that was my heart if anything should happen to my kid. We want to believe that there is a way to contact them. We want to believe that they “are in a better place” and we hope to meet them there someday. These are our hopes that we hold on to because without them the cold hard reality of nothingness weighs too heavy; life would surely be unbearable.
The film moves along seamlessly, carried through by a wonderfully subdued performance by Matt Damon. The real find here are the supporting players – unknown to us here in the states but all deserving of supporting nominations. C√©cile De France as Marie DeLay and Frankie McLaren as Marcus play opposite and equal Damon’s own story. In a supporting role that is much more complex than it first appears Bryce Dallas Howard is surprisingly magnetic in her role as one of Damon’s dates.
Hereafter was rolled out via Twitter and other impersonal social networking avenues as being not quite what people there seemed to be wanting. It isn’t the flavor of the month — it isn’t The King’s Speech, nor is it Black Swan. But it is quintessentially Eastwood – closing out a seemingly hopeless series of films depicting children being killed or abused — and the adults who must survive them. Here, there is loss. But there is hope too. Somewhere in all of the craziness, where the world seems to be falling apart one disaster at a time, there is still human connection.
I was unexpectedly moved by Hereafter — not just because it involved a heartbreaking scene involving children (who isn’t a sucker for that?) but because, to me, it was the kind of film that just doesn’t get made here in America, not by big studios or big directors. It is the kind of film that would be made in Europe for sure. And it is made in Europe – Paris and London specifically. It begins with a violent, breathtaking Tsunami sequence but it doesn’t rely on many effects beyond that. No spooky characters come back from the dead and grab anyone in the dark. What is supernatural here is also perfectly natural: it’s what we all experience in our lives as those we love inevitably leave us. Nothing lasts forever and no one lives that long.
Hereafter is also a gorgeous looking film – seamless editing by Joel Cox, lush cinematography by Tom Stern. If Oscar turns his head in its direction it could do quite well. But that’s an if at this point. I’m prepared for more of the film blogger hate to continue unabated. If it isn’t a movie for them, it isn’t a movie for them. There isn’t much that can be done about that. We all have our own tastes, of course. We come at this whole film blogging madness from different points of view, with different life experiences, at different points in our lives. We come to expect different things from the films we love.
But 2010 is, to me, the Year of the visionary directors. And those who have really made an impact on cinema in general, but also on me personally, include David Fincher for the Social Network, Derek Cianfrance for Blue Valentine, Christopher Nolan for Inception, Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone, Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech, Martin Scorsese for Shutter Island, Mike Leigh for Another Year, and yes, Clint Eastwood for Hereafter. At 80 years old, Eastwood remains a visionary.