Watching Hereafter is like spending Halloween at church. Clint Eastwood has been directing a lot of Hail Marys at us lately; he’s made a career of repenting—of cleaning Dirty Harry’s blood off his hands. Here, working with the playwright Peter Morgan (who wrote The Queen and the light-on-its-feet Frost/Nixon), there isn’t a spot of blood, and yet an ice-water ablution continues to stream from the spigot. Their subject, the private tragedies of psychics, gleams with promise. Directors like Scorsese or von Trier might burrow into a soothsayer’s brain and illuminate what they see with a seriocomic torch; Eastwood lights every scene with all-is-lost, empty-existence fluorescence: It’s so unflattering that Matt Damon has the pallor of Klaus Kinski. But it befits their straight take on this skewed subject. They banalize the supernatural by turning it into a public-service announcement.
Eastwood’s no-frills, almost monastic, style can be very generous; and there were times when I took pleasure in the filmmakers’ mastery of their respective crafts. As a lifelong San Franciscan who’s been clairvoyant since a childhood illness, Damon performs beautifully, gripping the character’s inner life with tactful reserve. George, at the behest of his entrepreneurial brother (Jay Mohr), was once paid generously for his powers; but being able to communicate with the dead means that he absorbs everything from the survivors who commission him. No longer able to bear this level of intimacy, he has quit and cloaked himself in anonymity. (As a token of this character’s sensitivity—and the actor’s—Damon is at his most expressive when George whispers; this man is haunted by the souls of the living. But, possibly inspired by his freestyle voiceover in The Informant!, this player’s musty auguries sound like vivacious improv.) When the opportunity arises for a more traditional form of intimacy with a flighty hot mess named Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), Eastwood lingers on their cooking-class courtship; one wants to see them get together. Unfortunately, she doesn’t heed George’s warnings, and goads him into performing a mini-séance for her father. The medium then uncovers facts that should’ve stayed on the down-low. As a token of the director’s sensitivity—and the writer’s, too—we see George again alone, and Melanie awash with tears.
This de facto theme of responsibility, which is amplified here to paranormal proportions, is not unfamiliar to Eastwood or Morgan; but, by reducing Damon’s plot to a mere third of the overall storyline, they may need to host a séance of their own to get it back. One thread, which starts the movie off with a bang, involves a Paris T.V.-news personality played by Cécile De France. She develops her sixth sense after being whipped around by what appears to be, without any substantiation, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But it seems as if it would take more than an act of God to breathe life into this fuddy Frenchwoman. After a few setbacks, and her coworkers’ very reasonable skepticism about her sudden-onset spiritualism, Marie sees herself as the fortunetellers’ Joan of Arc; but, unlike Saint Joan—or most Eastwoodland creatures—her newfound tumescence doesn’t result in a social conscience. Marie is a mystical brat. It’s in the third segment—which concerns an English boy’s attempts to communicate with his dead twin—that Eastwood’s heart begins to hemorrhage. He and Morgan aren’t above killing the kid en route to the pharmacy, where he’s retrieving a prescription that’ll treat their mother’s alcoholism. His last line, before being brutally flung at an oncoming car, is the peppy “We’ll be just like a normal family!” Not anymore…
If the filmmakers’ patience seems lambent in some sequences, it seems like poor judgment in others; their solemn pacing is the cortège that delivers the plot to its funeral. (And this material isn’t buried alive, mind you.) I might feel more kindly toward Hereafter if I could unearth the point that Eastwood and Morgan had intended to make. Miss Cleo and her kindred may be tempted to thank the movie for advocating their cause, but it hardly does the hereafter any favors. Envisioning the afterlife is an unenviable task, but Eastwood takes it on timorously; he gives us a nondenominational blur, unfettered by any pesky moral or spiritual underpinnings. (It’s hell if it’s anything; the film’s only a few minutes short of being an eternal punishment.) And whenever Morgan has the characters wax philosophically about life after death, he makes their arguments so unconvincing that even a toddler would not be swayed. (I’ve had deeper conversations with people krunked by a bonfire—pontificating through their beer bottles.) Even the stunning recreation of the tsunami is, alas, arbitrary: It’s just a “cinematic” way to slap Marie with a near-death experience. (The flood must’ve conked her differently than the illness did Damon: She’s seen the light, but demonstrates none of George’s psychical empathy. However—because she lacks his burden, the momentum that smooshes them together seems to be blowing them off-course. Marie’s trouble is that nobody believes her; that’s a problem that George only wishes he had.) From its tone, you’d never know how indebted the film is to a fantastical T.V. series like the late Pushing Daisies; Hereafter is in roughly the same genre as Cold Souls or Air Doll, but it’s neither goofy nor poetic. It’s a SyFy-channel love story with the heat turned off.