Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, like all his best movies, is very aware that it is a movie. Eastwood's directorial hand is never really invisible, though often quite gentle and modest. He's always telling us a cracker of a story, with unexpected, ironic developments. He can tease us, and tease us more for getting teased.
In Hereafter, Cécile de France plays journalist Marie LeLay, who hosts a national newscast in France and endorses products. She's on vacation with her producer (Thierry Neuvic, good), with whom she's romantically involved, as her new ad campaign blankets Paris with her beautiful mien. But circumstances intervene in her high-flying life to show her visions of an afterlife she comes to believe are not just hallucinations, but more evidence.
Matt Damon is one of two other major characters, George Lonegan, a former somewhat-famous psychic reader who retired from that game and found honest work in a factory. His brother (Jay Mohr, good) prevails upon him to do a reading for a potential client (Richard Kind) of the brother's business, which George does with great trepidation, but to the satisfaction of the client. George says he retired from active psychic reading because of its relationship to death. This makes enough sense on its face, however one settles the question of whether George's gift is truly supernatural or more about reading people, roping in predictions and pronouncements based upon visual, conversational and other feedback. Damon's performance here is quiet and considered, thoughtful and fine.
Meanwhile, we meet young twin brothers, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), living in London with a mother (Lyndsey Marshal) who is an addict. Together they've devised schemes and gambits to protect the full knowlege of the extent of her deterioration from social service authorities and win her back from her darkness so she can be their mother again, sadly predictably a losing battle for a couple of kids, no matter how smart and dedicated.
Telling too much about how these three come to interact would be a disservice to viewers. But we can be sure that beautiful filmmaking, bravura storytelling and a certain degree of humanistic ambivalence and irony will be involved. I have to say that I found the film immediately and drivingly moving. There's no fooling around when it comes to starting up the action and making the audience identify with sympathetic characters quickly placed in large and affecting situations. If your heart doesn't go in your throat a few times during this one, you're stolider than me. I found it a rare and valuable experience to see characters treated with such respect, with such freedom in the plotting so that we can follow them to big emotional extremes, and so little hammering down of what to think about it.
But in addition to the surface plot in which the characters are involved, there's a larger story also told about fame, show business, showmanship and belief which also leaves many interesting questions open. Both Lonegan and LeLay have a degree of fame at one point which they willingly sacrifice for what they view as larger truths, more important priorities. Marcus ends up in difficult circumstances when his family unit is disrupted, but can still dial them both up on the Internet just because he's interested and attempt to make a connection. There's a meta-level of media commentary going on which is about as strong as the emotional story, engaging the audience with larger issues of trust, belief, influence, appearances, and what it is that makes a good story.
At one point, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) explains to George, her cooking class partner with whom she shares a mutual attraction, that she has left Pittsburgh for a better life in California, in an obvious but slightly indirect funny little good-natured dialogue shout-out to M. Night Shyamalan and Ms. Howard's unfortunate history in his worst films. Eastwood does try to out-Night Shyamalan a bit with Hereafter, and he definitely shows he can score on similar territory (though, personally, and a bit rarely among fellow critics, I see Shyamalan as having had a great year with The Last Airbender and Devil). In addition to that light punch on the arm, Eastwood plays with conventions associated with Shyamalan's films to good effect, and affectionately.
At the same time, Howard's self-contained subplot with Lonegan, how they meet, notice one another, and react to Lonegan's gift/curse as a psychic is essential, and reflects back on the rest of the story dazzlingly, like trying to look at all the individual refractions from a lit-up crystal chandelier. (It can't be done, but the attempt creates a visual and sensory image or experience.) Steven Schirripa ("The Sopranos") has a nice cameo here as a wise cooking teacher whose class I would join if you have the sign-up sheet.
Hereafter is beautiful, moving, smart, learned, gripping and worth seeing. It has great performances, images, storytelling touches and conflicts illuminating the questions of life, death, afterlife, belief, charlatanism and love. And we decide what it can mean. It's the best Eastwood I've seen since--what?--Changeling? (I haven't seen Invictus yet.)
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