“Hereafter” begins placidly enough as it introduces us to Parisian TV news anchor Marie Lelay, vacationing at a balmy Indonesian beach resort with her producer-lover. While on an early morning shopping stroll to buy souvenirs, Marie and others in the busy street market become vaguely aware of a far-off roar and a stiff, rising breeze.
Those are eerie precursors of the massive tsunami that roared across the Indian Ocean in 2004, pummeling the coastline and sweeping some 230,000 people to their deaths. Director Clint Eastwood recreates that disaster in horrifying, hydraulic, chaotic detail with a realistic, workmanlike special-effects sequence (much of it achieved through CGI) that puts the razzle-dazzle trickery of most younger Hollywood blockbuster turks to shame.
But that’s merely the storm before the calm. “Hereafter” quickly shifts into a somber, pensive mood as it ventures to three countries and visits the lives of three desperate people forced to confront death and struggling with nagging questions about what comes after.
The film — contemplative, oblique and deliberately paced — seems at first blush an unlikely New Agey departure for the famously steely, straight-shooting director. But on second thought, in Eastwood’s earthy cinematic realm, sudden death is a prevailing presence, and the hereafter is often the ultimate destination for the good, the bad and the ugly who populate his films.
Death hovers over this story like an elegant, jazz-infused pall as Eastwood works mightily to pull all the film’s disparate elements into a harmonious whole.
The script by Peter Morgan (“The Queen”) interweaves three story strands — revisiting the mournful Marie (Belgian actress Cecile de France) after her near-death experience in the tsunami; looking in on George Lonegan (a solid Matt Damon), a reluctant San Francisco psychic whose gift has become a soul-crushing burden; and introducing us to hardscrabble London twins Marcus and Jacob (nonacting, 12-year-old brothers George and Frankie McLaren) as they fend off social services and cover up for their drug-dependent mother.
Marie, once a confident, rising media star, is haunted by visions of mortality and now questions everything she once held dear. George is determined to put his psychic powers on the shelf, but the pleas of a greedy brother (Jay Mohr) and a stalled romance with a charming cooking-class student (Bryce Dallas Howard) make him doubtful he can ever have a normal life free from intimations of death. And sudden tragedy sends twin Marcus on a quest to find a noncharlatan psychic who can put him in touch with the afterlife.
Eastwood’s great skill as a director has often enabled him to transform soft, fuzzy narratives to a tougher plane. He’s possessed of a dead-on bunkum detector that allows him to tamp down cliches and homilies, inject a healthy jolt of pragmatism and bring out the best in potentially mushy material (see “The Bridges of Madison County”).
In his measured, unassuming style, he allows the action here to unfold naturally — letting the story threads come together (perhaps a little too neatly), allowing his actors to invest their melancholy characters with a hard-won sense of hope, if no real semblance of eternal certainty. Even with a slightly forced, feel-good ending, questions linger, answers remain elusive. “Hereafter” starts with a bang but ends, like life, with that final cosmic query lingering in the air.
— Dennis King
Starring: Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Bryce Dallas Howard, Frankie and George McLaren, Jay Mohr.
(Thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, brief strong language)