Halfway through Hereafter, the latest film directed by Clint Eastwood, Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) sits at a table and encounters a situation that Eastwood himself has probably encountered in some form. She speaks to a large publishing house in France about the first three chapters of a book she is writing. She had originally agreed to write a new study of François Mitterrand; but she’s now decided to write about studies done on the afterlife and her own experiences with the spiritual world. As footage from the 2005 bombings in the London Underground play on television, the annoyed publisher indignantly asks why she can’t just stick to history, before she is told to sell it to the Americans or the English.
Marie is one of three storylines Eastwood follows in Hereafter but it is obviously the most personal for the director. Following a line of excellent late films that have explored how our history and attitudes inform our present actions, Hereafter is a film that, at first, seems to haphazardly attempt to grapple with mortality, aka our collective future. These attempts are not wholly successful, but dismissing the sincerity and personal weight of Eastwood’s film and the director’s formidable filmmaking abilities would be deeply cynical.
The film begins with LeLay, who gets a vision of the afterlife after she is swept away and nearly drowned in a tsunami during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. She survives miraculously, and she seems fine until the vision — which is little more than a shaky, blurry view of figures inhabiting a landscape lit by a bright white light — interrupts an interview with a crooked CEO on her television news program and soon becomes a hindrance to her career and her love life.
These visions are identical to those witnessed by George (Matt Damon), a single factory worker and secretive medium living in San Francisco. His visions, however, are prompted by other people who come to him for comfort from their loved ones who have passed on. His brother (Jay Mohr) once saw profit in this, and George did work as a psychic once. But he has since left in the hopes of building a normal life, and things seem promising when he meets a woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) at a culinary class. But George also has a website he never took down after quitting the psychic business, and it comes up when Marcus (George and Frankie McLaren), a boy in London, uses Google to find a reason for his twin brother’s sudden death, capping a personal survey of religions and false prophets.
Eastwood pulls off something rather fascinating here in that he seemingly clears the threat and worry of the afterlife without cleansing it of its importance, both to him and the audience. When Marcus finds YouTube clips related to the afterlife, he encounters two videos, one of a Muslim and the other of a Christian, and both are shown as stoic, unfeeling, and without nuance; Marie’s atheistic boyfriend (Thierry Neuvic) is presented similarly. These figures are linked in that they all search for a shared experience and a shared knowledge; it is yet another bid to assuage humanity’s deeply held fear of being alone. Eastwood does well by stressing moments of personal surrender, loss and, ultimately, relief with his three lost souls, for here he touches on how humans connect with themselves when they aren’t busy using Google and YouTube, other instruments meant to abate our feelings of loneliness by creating an imagined community.
Hereafter also sees Eastwood connecting with his own selective community, including the great DP Tom Stern, editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach and production designer James J. Murakami; Eastwood once again writes and conducts the score as well. But this is the first time the director has worked with Peter Morgan, the talented screenwriter behind The Queen and The Damned United and who based the script for Hereafter on feelings he encountered after losing a close friend. The feelings are conveyed beautifully but a few of the narrative mechanisms come across as insincere, if not downright ridiculous: A “conspiracy” to keep the truth about the afterlife a secret and a final act confluence that brings Marcus closure and romance for George and Marie are the most troublesome.
Hereafter is imperfect but it is less about understanding our final destination than how we map out our own course to arrive there; there are political and social ramifications as well but the film, thankfully, never concedes to allegory. It’s a film about feeling, seeing, and understanding things with an intimacy and clarity afforded only to the individual. One can imagine that where Marie meets her critics with a quiet resentment, Eastwood, having long been one of the most personal directors working in America, will meet his mounting critics with that trademark grin and a deep chuckle.