Across the Styx, but never out on a limb
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 22, 2010
For much of its two-hour-plus length, "Hereafter" plays like a smart and stylish thriller. Smart because of the way it pulls back, but only a little bit, from a full-on embrace of its central premise: the existence of an afterlife for the human soul. Stylish because of its cool and bloodless demeanor. The world it depicts - our world, the world of the here and now - is bathed in a deathlike pallor of icy blues and grays, whether set in San Francisco, London or Paris.
It's a thriller because of the pervasive tone of dread and sadness. For its three main characters, the world is a deeply haunted place indeed.
At the center of the mostly mesmerizing but finally flawed film is George Lonegan (Matt Damon). In the script by two-time Oscar nominee Peter Morgan ("The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon"), which has been directed with admirable restraint by Clint Eastwood, George is a former professional psychic who has shut down his lucrative Bay Area practice to work as a menial laborer. It seems that his ability to talk to the dead through readings is less the gift one might think than a curse.
All George has to do is to touch someone's hand and he's plugged into a parallel universe - a universe of actual ghosts and the ghosts of repressed trauma. These days, despite his best efforts, he's forever running away from skeletons: both the kind in the ground and the kind in someone else's closet.
Needless to say, this makes it kind of hard for George to maintain relationships. The first time he takes a woman's hand, as he does on an abortive first date with a flirtatious cutie from cooking class (Bryce Dallas Howard), he immediately knows everything about her. And I mean everything. So much for leaving something to the imagination.
But Eastwood's film isn't just about George's romantic problems. Woven into that narrative are two even more compelling story lines.
While on a vacation, French TV anchor Marie LeLay (Cecile de France) almost drowns, during what we're led to believe is the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This is the scene that opens the film, and it's a doozy of harrowingly real special-effects. Brought back from the brink of death, Marie soon quits her job to research and write a book on near-death experiences. (The name of the manuscript, "Hereafter," lends the film its title.)
Meanwhile, in London, a taciturn schoolboy named Marcus (Frankie McLaren) is traumatized when his identical twin, Jason, (George McLaren) is accidentally killed. Marcus spends the rest of the movie trying to contact his dead brother, or to track down somebody who can. At one point, Jason seems to reach from beyond the grave to save Marcus from one of the London subway bombings of 2005, by knocking Marcus's hat off his head.
It's these dramatic close calls - first the tsunami, then the bombing - that lend the film an air of mounting suspense. Eastwood and Morgan handle them with as little cheesiness as possible, under the circumstances. The tone is not one of skepticism, so much as deadpan acceptance of things we may not understand.
As the film proceeds, however, something terrible (or perhaps something wonderful) seems to be brewing, something even more dramatic than what's come before. Something that somehow involves not only George, and his ability to connect with the other side, but also Marie and Marcus. It takes the film nearly two hours to get there, but finally, near the end of the movie, all three characters wind up in London, for what we've been led to believe will be a collision - or at least a fusion - of artfully woven plotlines.
That fusion never takes place.
Not, at least, in the way that Eastwood and Morgan have been hinting at in "Hereafter's" deliciously creepy, otherworldly build-up. George and Marcus do meet. So do George and Marie. The film is filled with such great little one-on-one scenes. And the best of them are between the living, not between the living and the dead.
But the big payoff fizzles. By pulling its punches, by refusing to make outlandish claims about a world beyond this one, "Hereafter" avoids the pitfalls of other supernatural thrillers. But it's unable to avoid the even soggier conventions of the movie romance.
It starts out with a tsunami - and ends up standing in a puddle.
Contains disturbing disaster and accident scenes, brief crude language and drug and alcohol abuse. In English and some French with English subtitles.