Thursday, November 11, 2010

Love and Death: HEREAFTER

In Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s latest feature, we follow three separate stories in which people that are forced to confront death find nothing but endless questions filling their restless minds. There’s the French journalist (Cécile de France) who is caught in a natural disaster. There are the London-dwelling twin boys (Frankie and George McLaren) who are about to experience a death in the family. Then there’s the Californian psychic (Matt Damon) who can communicate with the dead; the briefest touch of a stranger gives him visions of blurry blue-gray figures that wish to communicate. Each encounter leaves the characters rattled. The journalist can’t keep her mind on her work. The boys are forced to cope with a painful loss that can’t be understood. The psychic has long since stopped giving readings; each communication is simply too painful, too distressing. They all just want to be whole again, to live normal lives, but the mysteries of life and death are too insistent and persistent.

It’s to Eastwood’s credit, and to the credit of Peter Morgan’s screenplay, messy though it is, that this is a film uninterested in forcing answers to these questions. This is a film about wondering, about searching, about grasping for answers where certainty is an utter impossibility. How does one live a full life after a glimpse into death? France can’t concentrate on her job. McLaren’s yearning for answers leads to an increasing feeling of solitude. For Damon’s character the burden is the heaviest. He cannot make a human connection without the risk of feeling all of another’s past pain.

This shaken yearning from the leads causes the film to feel more than a little inert. There’s no momentum here. There are no clear objectives. This is a quiet and deliberate (some may say “plodding”) rumination and it has some lovely character moments. The scenes between Damon and a potential love interest, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, play out with tender suspense. The dazed feeling written on France’s face as she goes back to work still haunted by her experience is palpable. Other scenes fall flat, like moments involving a poorly cast Jay Mohr as Damon’s brother or a montage of con artists who are cashing in on their pretended psychic powers. Indeed, by the end of the film the plotting, which already seemed to feel some strain while moving between the various storylines, seems to fizzle out.

But this is not a film primarily concerned with plot. This is a film of mood and pondering, with characters that come face to face with death and are deeply shaken by it. Eastwood has once again surrounded himself with capable artists and craftspeople that have created a film with a simple, professional shine, like the team of special effects artists that provides a mostly astonishing natural disaster with which to open the film and director of photography Tom Stern, who gives the film a cold glow. Eastwood is not a flashy visual stylist. He sets up his shots simply and unobtrusively to frame the dialogue and whenever he stretches to show a few unclear seconds of a foggy hereafter, he doesn’t always achieve the needed effect.

Even so, the primal power of the topic pushes the film forward. This is a film that boldly and uneasily takes on the subject of death. It’s not conventionally satisfying, and a bit confused. But it’s compelling enough with scenes of strong feeling and a gripping, futile longing for the comfort of certainty.

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