As an actor, Clint Eastwood has always embodied a gruff, American ideal. Tough and no-nonsense, the last thing you would expect from Eastwood the actor was sensitivity. Ironically, in the films Eastwood has directed, including Hereafter, poetic stillness has dominated far more than any action set pieces.
This is an appropriate approach for a film that breaches one of the most sensitive of subjects: death. In three intertwining stories, the impact of death is felt not on those who have died, but on those who are left alone to grieve in their absence.
The film opens with an idyllc paradise, as television reporter Marie walks from her hotel room to buy gifts for her boyfriend’s children. As she walks through the sand and surf, she maintains a telephone conversation in Paris, oblivious to what is around her. It is not long before the impact of a tsunami suddenly sweeps her away in its currents, leaving her with a near death experience she cannot shake.
In America, George Lonnegan (Matt Damon) lives a quiet life, burdened by a psychic ability to communicate with those who have died, which flashes before his eyes whenever he touches someone’s skin. Rather than embracing the commercial potential of this power, he elects to work in a factory. For George, this is a curse, not a gift, for knowing the memories that people hold of the dead brings with it knowing their secrets, some of which are not easily forgotten.
Meanwhile, in Britain, young identical twins Marcus and Jason shelter their drug-abusing mother from Child Services. Their love for one another is impalpable in their brief scenes together before one dies in a tragic accident. Left as one half of a whole, Frankie McLaren as the survivor is the emotional anchor of the movie.
As expected, their lives intersect, though the contrivance that brings them together is one of the weaker moments in the movie. Thankfully, it arrives not until the very end, leaving us to get to know these characters and their lives in tiny moments that are given a wide berth to play out.
It is this attention to detail in the small things that gives Hereafter its power. Death occurs with no warning in this movie, and there is always a small moment that leads one to question what may have occurred differently if a different train was taken, or someone else runs a fated errand. It mirrors our own memories when we experience regret as the smallest of decisions is examined beyond exhaustion.
Only in a film with Eastwood’s restraint allows our minds to follow such paths, which reflect the pace that everyday life is carried out over dinners, or classes taken together. The only punctuation to these moments are a handful of sudden disasters, which occur with no warning and are lingered on only briefly.
Despite the realism of these incidents, it is the actors’ performances that resonate. As one man is told things about his wife that he told no one, the smallest flicker across his face speaks volumes. As the burdened psychic, Matt Damon gives his most nuanced performance in years, letting small actions speak the truth of his character rather than overblown mannerisms or tics.
The depiction of the hereafter itself is also restrained, and without any religious inflection, save for the brief detours when Marcus tours various people who claim to speak with the dead, only to find that their connections are thinly veiled hoaxes.
It must be said that Hereafter is not a movie for those without patience. While only about two hours, the film often feels much longer than this, and some scenes feel inserted out of necessity rather than growing organically from the narrative. It seems the less the film relies on the plot, the better off it is.
In movies that rely heavily on twists and turns, the leisurely pace of this film may be jarring, but for those who reward it with their attention, it pays emotional dividends. It is a flawed film at times, yet remains one of the more emotionally satisfying films of the year. Hereafter does this not through broad action, but simple steps, much like the ones we take every day in our own lives.