Sunday, October 17, 2010
In his last HBO special, George Carlin dissected the idea of deceased loved ones watching over us from the afterlife. A quaint, comforting idea he agreed, but isn't it a really crummy deal for the dead person, just watching live people all the time? What kind of eternity is that? You're granted access to the answers to all the great mysteries of existence and all you're going to do is hover over my shoulder and make sure I pass my driving test? Seems more than a little disappointing, doesn't it? Clint Eastwood's Hereafter pretty much subscribes to this view. It presents a very sophisticated, polished production, but on a basic level it is saying, "Yes, your loved ones are all in Heaven and want very much to talk to you and tell you everything is going to be alright."
Just by structuring the story this way screenwriter Peter Morgan suggests a grand meaning that the film never really delivers on. Whenever the spiritual is addressed the mystery of it is barely if ever acknowledged. Is there an afterlife? Yup. Do psychics really exist? Sure do. Do dead people have messages for us? Yes: Stop crying and move on with your life. Now a movie can present one or all those things as true and still be good. Wings of Desire is a genuinely great film and that had angels strolling all over Germany. But that film had what Hereafter lacks: a sense of awe in the face of the unknowable. Hereafter even drops in a scientist to claim that there is irrefutable proof of an afterlife that is being suppressed, an idea the movie never explores.
Now I'm not asking for divine intervention. I don't need a Magnolia-style plague of frogs to descend. In fact, I think Hereafter was on the right track rooting the film in the mundane details of day-to-day life. All the better to show the amazement of the supernatural when it arrives. But Hereafter never manages to astound us. It falls back on a reductive, cliched view of death - white lights, glimpses of glowing ghostly figures, psychics holding your hand "to make a connection." It's Touched by an Angel dressed up in A-List Hollywood clothes.
So philosophy aside, how's the movie?
It's a pretty flat affair. Peter Morgan's gift for writing sharp dialogue and memorable characters appears to have abandoned him for this script. I didn't know going in that he was the writer and I never would have guessed that the man behind the quietly witty The Queen and hugely entertaining The Damned United was responsible for this. Despite a game cast none of the characters pop, and most of the dialogue is functional. I could have done without Damon declaring "This isn't a blessing. It's a curse!" once, let alone the three or so times he says it.
Not that the film is terrible by any stretch. I was never bored - Clint is too much of a pro for that. Although I think it's telling that all the film's best moments have nothing to do with the spiritual side of things. The life of the little boy living with his addict mom, covering for her with visiting social workers, is a wonderful self-contained short film. The scenes involving Damon tentatively starting up a flirtation with Bryce Dallas Howard in a cooking class are charming, and the near-death experience of the news woman is a stunner, one of the most riveting depictions of a natural disaster that I've seen in a movie. It's almost as if when the subject turned to the spiritual Eastwood and Morgan felt obligated to be somber and stone-faced. The life goes out of the film (so to speak) and we get lots of shots of Damon laying in the darkness staring at the ceiling.
I give a lot of credit to Eastwood for attempting this material. Here is a guy who willing to step out of his comfort zone and try something daring. But I wonder if Eastwood's instincts as a showman may have held the him back here. He is one of those directors, like Hitchcock, who is all about the audience first. The film can contain depth and meaning, but only after priority one, entertain the crowd, has been met. That hasn't kept him from exploring some complex ideas about good and evil in films like A Perfect World, Mystic River or Unforgiven. But those films were couched neatly in straight-forward narratives. With this more unconventionally structured story one gets the feeling that Eastwood and Morgan are letting the spiritual material be simplistic for fear of leaving the audience behind.
In the end, Hereafter settles for some predictable character beats to wrap things up, when what the film really needs is to reach for something grand. A payoff that shakes us even if it leaves us on unsure footing. As it stands the film is about some nice people who step a toe over the line into the next world and are a little better for it. Not terrible, but the film had the potential to be much more.
Verdict: It's hard to not let one's personal beliefs influence things. I've loved films both spiritual (The Passion of Joan of Arc) and overtly religious (The Last Temptation of Christ) so I believe I can say with some objectivity that Hereafter comes up short by not evoking in the audience some of the awe inherent in crossing the line between life and death. It's an ambitious film but it filters that ambition through familiar life-after-death banalities until there is little of it to be found in the finished product. 5 out of 10