On the face of it, Hereafter might seem an odd fit for Clint Eastwood. A supernatural drama directed by the man who made his name through gritted teeth and a really big gun?
Eastwood, however, has always been keen to confound expectations, alternating between films engineered to play to his strengths and those that might stretch them.
As early as 1971’s The Beguiled, he was turning his image on its head, then went back to the day job with Joe Kidd in 1972, before 1973’s Breezy showed his more sensitive side. A kind of ‘one for me, one for them’ arrangement way before Steven Soderbergh got in on the act.
But Hereafter isn’t the big stretch it would appear to be. There’s a big question hinted at within Peter Morgan’s screenplay: what happens when we die? But Eastwood isn’t interested in that here. He’s tackled his own mortality as long ago as 1995’s Unforgiven, then again in Gran Torino (and even explored reincarnation in 1973’s High Plains Drifter). Been there, done that, got the Oscar.
The real theme at the heart of Hereafter is one so Eastwoodian that it’s a wonder Morgan didn’t write it with Clint in mind. Maybe he did and just didn’t realise it. Because Hereafter is really a film about loneliness and how far people will go to overcome it.
Matt Damon’s George Lonegan, a true psychic who can communicate with the dead, is the latest in a long line of Eastwood protagonists removed from society because of who they are and what they’ve done. Think Harry Callahan, Absolute Power‘s Luther Whitney, Million Dollar Baby‘s Frankie Dunn, men without a family, but yearning for one.
And so, what sounds far-fetched on pape – a Derek Acorah-type figure who can actually do what he says – becomes utterly believable on screen. Eastwood’s way with underplaying makes Lonegan the film’s most sympathetic character, and Damon does a nice line in drooped shoulders and quiet resignation (making his smile all the more winning when it shows up).
The film’s other two strands take us further afield in young twins Jason and Marcus in London, Cécile de France’s French journalist Marie in Paris, but keep with the theme of shock and loss. Indeed, Hereafter starts with a big shock, a special effects set piece from a director who doesn’t really do special effects set pieces.
From there, Eastwood does the Robert Altman thing, dividing his time between multiple story strands and gently bringing them towards each other. So, Hereafter finds its director stretching his wings a little bit, playing around with a few new toys before realising he likes his old ones just fine. For all the CGI flourishes and storytelling trickery, Hereafter feels like Eastwood sticking to what he knows.
In a way, that’s a good thing. Eastwood doesn’t try to make it into something it isn’t. Hereafter is a simple tale, or three, of people searching for one another. And Eastwood just lets it play out at its own, sedate pace
That’s great when Damon and de France are on screen, not so much when the focus shifts to the twins. Eastwood can’t quite rein in the histrionics, or turn the best intentions of young actors George and Frankie McLaren into convincing performances. Their scenes start well (pared down dialogue helps), but then lurch into clumsy melodrama.
Hereafter is far from the masterpiece one or two critics may like to call it, but it’s also far from the misfire others may judge it to be. It takes a little too long to get to where it’s going, and by the time it gets there you might wonder if it was worth the effort.
Eastwood journeys always have something to recommend them, however, and it’s the little things that make Hereafter inthe familiar Eastwood piano track, sparse and beautiful, his economy with dialogue that lets some scenes play out like a silent movie, a lovingly captured flirtation between Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard, and two big oomph scenes that had me wincing out loud.
Not classic Clint, but it’ll do until his next one comes along. Which shouldn’t be too long at all.