As an actor, Clint Eastwood has frequently played characters who have a causal role in shuffling others off this mortal coil. As a director, he seems often to have death on his mind too, so it should come as no surprise that in Hereafter, he contemplates (or is it confronts?) death again. The difference is that Hereafter looks at death from the point of view of survivors, those touched (but not fatally) by death. Eastwood has looked at death from both sides now.
Hereafter, written by Peter Morgan (The Queen), engages in some tentative speculation about the afterlife, but the story, about three lives that intersect, coincidentally, in the aftermath of death, is more concerned with the living. Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) is a French journalist who survives the Indonesian tsunami (chillingly recreated); she has the classic near-death experience -- white light, shadowy figures who beckon her -- as she is submerged by the epic, killer wave. She's haunted by her experience and, like a good reporter, endeavors to dig deeper and find out more. George Lonegan (Matt Damon) has had about enough of the dead -- he's a psychic, apparently the real deal, who communicates with the dead on behalf of the living who long to speak once more with their dearly departed. He considers his "gift" to be a burden. His entrepreneurial (and exploitative) brother (Jay Mohr) tries to talk him into cashing in on his talent, but he'd rather keep a low profile and work in a warehouse. Marcus and Jason are identical twin brothers (played by Frankie and George McLaren). The two boys keep their family together (mum's a mess), and they've got a unique connection to each other that isn't completely severed when one brother is killed.
Eastwood, in his typical, understated way, makes a typically understated movie that's intriguing and moving, although oddly disconnected. Death, of course, comes for us all, and in that we are all connected, all one in the human condition. But that's not much to hang a narrative on, and in the end, Hereafter just kind of runs its course and fades out. It dies a natural, quiet death, so to speak, which is an atypical sort of death in the movies.
Despite the title's intimations of revealing a glimpse of the great beyond, it is scarcely concerned with the afterlife, and more concerned with life. Lacking any particular narrative momentum, the movie instead lingers on moments, on day-in-the-life stuff that happens to the characters. Marie can't focus at work, so she takes a leave of absence to write a book about the life and death of Francois Mitterand that turns into a book about death, and life after it. The movie follows her through a series of vignettes -- business meetings, intimate dinners, conversations. George listens to books on tape -- he's a big fan of Dickens -- and takes an Italian cooking class, where he meets flirty, sweet Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who gives him a glimpse of what a "normal" life might be like. He is self-protective, seeking to shield himself from the voices of the dead, but it requires him to sometimes be cruel to the living. Shy, lonely Marcus longs to be with his protective brother Jason again, and seeks out a series of charlatans who claim they can communicate with the dead boy. The natural, solemn, sometimes awkward performances by the McLaren brothers takes what might have been maudlin material and makes it clear-eyed and melancholy, but not pitiful.
The same is true of the rest of the movie. Eastwood deftly avoids the pitfalls of sloppy sentimentality -- a real danger given the subject matter -- and maintains a certain equilibrium, and a cool distance. The movie sympathizes, foremost, with the questioning, the curiosity about death, rather than with the grieving. It takes its lead, it seems, from the dead, who, when George speaks for them at least, are all business. They've got things to say, important messages to convey, but they're not gonna get all weepy and mushy, or waste time (which is odd, since it is presumably timeless there in eternity). Their message for the living: get on with your lives. And that, in the end, is what Hereafter does too -- its a quiet, unassuming, anti-nihilist reflection on living in the face of death, on continuing in spite of the inevitable. In the midst of life, we are in death, so carry on.