Review: Hereafter (2010)

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Eastwood has long stood as a director firmly rooted in the world of reality. While films such as Space Cowboys and Firefox may admittedly delve into fantastical elements, their setting is clearly fixed in the tangible realm of our own existence. Without so much as a single dream sequence across 30 films, Eastwood’s taking on a concept as detached from concrete reality as the afterlife with Hereafter seemed a considerable departure from the director’s comfort zone.

Apparently able to contact the departed following his own brush with death as a child, George Lonegan struggles to maintain a normal life, ignoring the advice of his brother to capitalise upon his “gift”. Experiencing death briefly for herself, French broadcaster Marie Lelay attempts to come to terms with that which she has seen, increasingly distracted from the world around her by that which seems to lie beyond. In London, the young Marcus grieves for his recently-deceased twin brother.

Hereafter’s sole Oscar nomination was for special effects, an honour it clearly earns within its opening moments. We have barely taken our seats before the film plunges us into its characters’ lives, its beginning completely startling and disconcerting. This is a strong opening, and one that comes at you with a tremendous power. From the start, Hereafter cements itself within the here and now of our world, anchoring itself firmly in the fabric of reality. Rooted in contemporary events, Peter Morgan’s screenplay is keen to assure us that this is no fantasy world. Its trio of characters each encounters significant events of the past decade, be it the London bombings of 2005 or the earliest signs of the oncoming global financial crisis.

The journeys these characters take are, in their own ways, involving and interesting. George’s difficulty in dealing with his “gift” is fantastically realised in Matt Damon’s excellent performance, imbuing his character with a deep tragedy. The character’s torment is communicated fully, his face remaining basked completely in shadow for the entirety of his first scene onscreen. His attempts to connect with a woman whom he meets in cookery class form a charming central heart for the film, building to a delicate crescendo with a scene employing “Nessun Dorma” to magnificent effect. It is in scenes such as these that Eastwood wonderfully displays a comprehensive understanding of humanity and its inherent frailty, and in these moments the film excels.

Alas, these moments are all too rare in Hereafter, its instances of true beauty often lost in the unconvincing playing out of the scenes that follow. Though Cécile de France draws us into Marie’s quest to discover what exactly occurred to her when she faced death, her somewhat dull and underexplored story gives her too little to do, and the strength of her character goes untapped for most of her time onscreen. It is in Marie’s strand that Hereafter loses itself irreparably, seeming to settle on the conclusion that her vision of the “afterlife” is not some mysterious interpretation of her dying mind, but a scientifically verifiable plane of existence. In this turn, the film loses the exploration of death and our reactions and attitudes toward it which it should be tackling, a fatal move that never allows it to reach the probing dissection of Eastwood’s usual approach.

As the young twins, Frankie and George McLaren are less than convincing, their lines delivered without any degree of conviction or passion, weakening considerably what ought to be the film’s most emotionally involving narrative thread, though not so much that it loses its effect. Theirs is a deeply compelling story, realised with a sensitivity and gentleness that manages, difficult though it may be, to overcome the shortcomings of its young performers.

Narratives dealing with a multitude of unrelated characters make for difficult executions; so often the means in which these converge, as they inevitably must, are contrived and unbelievable. This is unfortunately true of Hereafter. The point at which its characters cross paths rightfully greeted with groans and sniggers. The manner in which George finds himself united with the other two characters is particularly poorly thought out, drawing on a shamefully clunky exposition of his penchant for the works of Charles Dickens. This wince-inducing coming together of characters constitutes by far the film’s most difficult hurdle to overcome. Fortunately for those who make it, the final scenes return to the kind of deep understanding of humanity that Eastwood displays in his strongest moments.

A theme which, in more hands than not, makes for sentimental dross, the great question of death and the afterlife is a narrative minefield, threatening at any moment to explode and destroy any trace of quality a take thereon might have to offer. Hereafter is far from a fantastic story, its many many flaws consistently holding it back, be they honking contrivances or just plain dullness. Nevertheless, Eastwood manages now and then to shine through and make something special with this mess, shaping it into poignant observations on life and our species’ experience of it. Only the very best of directors could make something of Hereafter. Evidently, Eastwood is among them.

[notification type=”star”]65/100 – Hereafter is far from a fantastic story; nevertheless, Eastwood manages now and then to shine through and make something special with this mess, shaping it into poignant observations on life and our species’ experience of it.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.