NYFF 2010: HEREAFTER Review

The opening scenes of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter are remarkably deceptive. We are teased with the possibility of adult, dimensional characters, and storytelling that respects our intelligence by suggesting things instead of spelling them out. Couple this with visuals that are at once lush and crisp, and characters who speak in French, and one can't be blamed for thinking that someone swapped in a reel from an Olivier Assayas film. Also early on, Hereafter delivers a natural disaster set piece that, while not flawless, shows a lot of thought and generates some moments of true horror and excitement--in other words, real emotion. The remainder of the movie, however, devolves into one of the most clunky, literal-minded, and intelligence-insulting pieces of "serious" Hollywood filmmaking this writer has seen in a long, looong time.

 

As George Lonegan, Matt Damon does his best to avoid making his loner, ex-psychic character a cliché, occasionally supplying some funny line-readings and bursts of charm. But the script by Peter Morgan saddles him with saying that his ability to communicate with the dead is a "curse, not a blessing" about twenty times more than is necessary. (Tip to Morgan:  even once would have been too much--we should sense this.) Damon, though, is off-screen for long stretches as we follow near-death-experiencer/news anchor/author Cécile De France--playing, as in High Tension, a character named Marie--as she tries to... do what exactly? Make sense of her brush with death and plot her next career move? If this sounds less than compelling to you, you'd be right. There's a germ of a movie in here that could be interesting if there were some genuine dramatic tension. Or maybe such a premise would just materialize into a banal message movie about not being narrow-minded about life-after-death, but sadly Hereafter does not rise even to that level. Finally, there's a third storyline involving a young London boy who wants to connect with the dead for personal reasons. Almost every scene in this strand telegraphs forthcoming events or exhorts us to get out our handkerchiefs, or both.  


There are so many problems with Hereafter that it's hard to single out one in particular, but I'd say that what really dooms it is the general air of sentimental predictability combined with a silly, simple-minded approach to bringing the characters together. The result is sub-Paul Haggis triteness filtered through a sub-sub-Inarritu "we're-all-connected" sensibility. It's as though Morgan has seen Crash and Amores Perros (there's even a character-on-a-billboard motif) far, far too many times... and Eastwood has seen them not at all. And I'm guessing that he also hasn't seen the spate of movies and television series dealing in communicating with the dead that appeared in the wake of The Sixth Sense over the past decade; otherwise he'd know that there is absolutely nothing original in Hereafter's treatment of the topic. Worse still, the film reflects a young child sense's of the metaphysics of the paranormal:  at first the dead simply deliver verbal messages to the living, and even then only when Damon establishes direct contact--but when it serves to jazz the lackluster plot, one of the dead spirits not only predicts forthcoming tragedy but also manifests in our world to protect one of the characters. Huh? (On our plane of existence Hereafter is equally shoddy in its logic. For sheer dramatic effect Marie has an abrupt, in-person confrontation with her publisher over an issue that in the real world would have been handled via e-mails, agents, and phone calls long before it came to this.) 


Hereafter makes as little sense in filmic terms. There's a scene at a Swiss hospice that one can't help but feel is included largely because of the Alpine vistas. There's also the embarrassingly wooden staging at events such as the London Book Fair, where Marie moves from a reading to a book signing with a mechanical sweetness that suggests she's leading pre-schoolers from building blocks to juice-and-cookies time. Most annoying is the film's copout in terms of showing us what George actually experiences when he speaks for the dead. Had we not seen anything at all, but only his responses to his visions, there might be an interesting ambiguity at work. But we do see initial subjective flashes--and then the film unfailingly cuts back to Damon sitting in a darkened room and stays there, so that we never fully get a sense of "the hereafter" or what visiting it is like for George. How exactly are the dead telling him things? What does it sound like, for example? And why are certain parts of the communication unclear? One might counter-argue that the movie is about grief and relationships, not about speaking with the dead per se--except that this isn't true. We simply spend too much time listening to George explain how he got his powers, watching charlatans at work, and hearing Marie prattle on about the scientific evidence for the hereafter. Yet despite all this, there's only a couple of minutes out of a two-hour runtime devoted to the audience having any firsthand cinematic experience of the central topic. It's like deciding to film Seabiscuit and then having your characters only listen to radio broadcasts of the races, letting the audience catch a glimpse of a, you know, actual horse for only a minute or two during each act. 


And speaking of horses, I think I've beaten this dead one quite enough by now. Hereafter is probably only suited for Eastwood and Damon completists, and even they are likely to be sorely disappointed.


Limited ticket availability to all Closing Night screenings at NYFF:

Sun Oct 10: 7:00pm (Gala screening/ ATH) Ticket Info >>
Sun Oct 10: 8:15pm (Festival screening/ WRT) Ticket Info >>
Sun Oct 10: 10:00pm (Festival screening/ ATH) Ticket Info >>
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