As an actor, Clint Eastwood made his name playing an angel of death, the iconic cop and laconic cowboy who would take grim pleasure in blowing the bad guys to kingdom come. But as a director in the twilight of his career, Hollywood’s elder statesman has now levelled his squinting gaze at what lies beyond. Eastwood’s latest film is a contemplative drama about the mystery of the afterlife, but the greater puzzle is the existence of the movie itself. Hereafter marks a bizarre departure for the 80-year-old filmmaker—and also for Matt Damon, who stars as a closet clairvoyant, and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who strays far from the historical fare of The Queen and Frost/Nixon to create fiction that requires us to believe Damon sees dead people.
But Hereafter has little in common with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. It takes a modest approach to metaphysics, with no mind-bending plot twists, and after some early scenes of harrowing action, it settles into a remarkably understated drama.
The film juggles three far-flung and unconnected storylines that finally converge by happenstance—a device familiar from the work of director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga (Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel). But unlike his Mexican counterparts, Eastwood (who stays off-screen) fuses the disparate elements without jolts of melodrama. This, too, is a change of pace for the man who made Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Changeling, Gran Torino and Invictus—all hot-blooded sagas of triumph or tragedy.
The film’s pensive mood is preceded by some riveting bursts of high drama. The first is a spectacular set piece that would be at home in a summer blockbuster—a venture into digital effects that marks another striking departure for Eastwood. A tsunami hits a Southeast Asian beach where Marie (Cécile de France), a French news anchor, is vacationing with her producer boyfriend (Thierry Neuvic). First glimpsed from a hotel balcony, a monstrous wave rises out of the ocean, then demolishes the hotel and surges through the streets where Marie is shopping for trinkets. Dragged under and knocked unconscious, she has a near-death experience, which still haunts her after she returns to Paris.
In London, a second storyline involves a brutal accident that kills one of two twin boys, whose working-class mother is an addict on the verge of losing her kids to child services. Desperate to contact his dead brother, the surviving twin scours the Internet for psychics. But all prove to be frauds. In San Francisco, meanwhile, a genuine psychic named George (Damon) has ditched his career as a medium to drive a forklift. To the dismay of his brother (Jay Mohr), who wants to exploit him, George views his ability to contact the dead as a curse, not a gift. The spirits he sees are shown as blurry, innocuous blobs, but he wants no part of them. Determined to hide his secret and live a normal life, George tiptoes into the shallow end of romance with a woman he meets in a cooking class (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose bubbly demeanour masks an inevitably haunted past.
For a film that opens with the kind of spectacle we’d expect from Steven Spielberg, Hereafter ambles to a surprisingly low-key conclusion, an anti-epiphany. In fact, Spielberg, who is an executive producer, first drew Eastwood’s attention to the script, which Morgan wrote after a close friend died in an accident. But the mogul’s pop style hasn’t rubbed off.
Clint directs the way he acts, with a slow, dignified, somewhat stiff gravitas. His long-time cinematographer, Tom Stern, crafts classy visuals, with a palette that shifts from sleek to sombre as he dials through the triptych of settings. And Eastwood, who draws coolly modulated performances from Damon and de France, rides the elegant mood with a whimsical score of his own composition.
Hereafter may leave viewers nonplussed. But it’s an intriguing curiosity from a prolific auteur who—unlike the even more prolific Woody Allen—is not content to repeat himself. Instead, Clint stares down his own mortality by challenging himself, and his fans, to try something new.