Sunday, November 7, 2010


To believe in the afterlife is not necessarily to believe in God. It is, instead, to believe in something. That is, after all, the reason we believe in anything isn’t it: in hope that, no matter how things are now, there’s always something better just up ahead and around the corner? Some feel that death is what makes life important. If you think about it, depending on where you stand, it’s also what makes life insignificant. We live and then we die. It’s not glamorous. Maybe that’s why we need to believe in something after death: if this is it, most of us would probably demand a refund. That’s one of life’s little contradictions: the reality of death makes us live a little better while it also means that everything we do here is essentially meaningless. Sure, some could leave a timeless legacy behind but, all the same, at the end of the tunnel there’s only one choice and it’s the same for everyone. Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s newest directorial effort, isn’t much more profound than that, which is, so to speak, about as profound as it needs to be.

The film follows three people whose lives are all affected in some way by death. The first is TV newswoman Marie (Cecile de France) who, while vacationing is caught in a tsunami. By the time she washes up on dry land she is assumed dead but jolts back to life after experiencing a blurry vision of shadowed figures shrouded in bright light. The experience leaves her distracted and having visions of a possible afterlife. Her producer/lover tells her to take a break from work and write the book she’s always wanted to. However, so changed is she that her writing and research begins jeering toward exploring the possibilities of an afterlife.

The second is Marcus (played by twin brothers George and Frankie McLaren) who is taken away from his drug addled mother after the accidental death of his twin brother Jason. Put in foster care and seeking some kind of understanding on why his brother, the leader of the two, needed to die, Marcus travels from psychic to psychic, only to be handed cheap entertainment value and no real answers.

The final is George (Matt Damon), a man who, as a child, had a crippling disease which required surgery that left him dead for several moments on the operating table. After his recovery he was plagued by visions of the dead. He was diagnosed as partially schizophrenic and put on pills, which made the visions go away along with just about everything else as well. His brother Billy (Jay Mohr) makes him into a famous psychic until George cannot take it any more, gets a job as a labourer and starts taking cooking classes. Despite Billy’s belief that George should use his gift to help people, a life focused entirely on death is not a life at all to George who believes himself to be cursed by this burden that restricts him from forming any normal, meaningful relationships in his life.

It is then only natural that these three stories will all converge in one way or another. But this isn’t a film driven by plot gimmicks or convenient red herrings. Instead Eastwood and his writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) play it straight, weaving a subtle tapestry that looks at death honestly and thoughtfully. This isn’t a film about spirits or hauntings, it’s a subtle human drama about how death shapes our perceptions of life as Eastwood gently builds up questions about whether or not the afterlife even exists. Is everything a product of chance or fate? Does the ability to communicate with the dead provide proof of Heaven or God or is such an ability just a condition of the mind to begin with?

What is most remarkable about Hereafter is then the subtly and yet depth with which Eastwood approaches his material: never resorting to pseudo-philosophy or providing answers to eternally unanswerable questions.

Many people will be turned off by this. The human mind has a natural reflex to instantly fill in the blanks and find artistic meaning in everything. “But what’s the movie about,” many will shout. It’s about one scene. I’ll describe it for you. Despite the fact that, because the movie has no twist or deep mystery to discover, this description hardly constitutes giving away anything important, I’ll still throw out a spoiler alert for those who have not seen the film.

The scene takes place between George and Marcus. George has reluctantly agreed to give the kid a reading in order to contact his brother. George acts as the medium but after a while loses the signal. “Where did he go?” The kid demands. “I don’t know,” replies George.

It’s one of those brilliant Clint Eastwood scenes, so subtle that they could be mistaken for nothing and yet are still the heart of the film, concealing such dramatic revelation, in which the faces of two characters, both half obscured by darkness, are intercut. They are physically divided and yet symbolically singled, sharing, for one moment, a common metaphysical bond.

And that’s it, the truth of all three characters: “I don’t know.” That is, after all, to paraphrase Socrates, all we every really know about anything anyway.

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