Hereafter is a very serious film about a very serious topic, death. Following three separate but ultimately connected stories, the film attempts to explore death and the question of what happens after death from three different angles — intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I really wanted Hereafter to be a great film. So did the film’s makers, which is precisely why Hereafter fails.
The intellectual consideration of death is represented by the character of Marie (Cecile De France), a French journalist who, at the start of the film, drowns in a tsunami and is, for a few minutes, clinically dead. Before she is eventually revived, she has a classic near-death experience: the bright light, the people waiting to greet her, the whole deal. After this experience, Marie is compelled to investigate whether or not there truly is such a thing as an afterlife. As she does so, Marie finds herself shunned by her resolutely secular friends and grows increasingly distant from her skeptical (and rather condescending) boyfriend.
The emotional response to death is represented in the story of twin brothers, Marcus and Jason (played by Frankie and George McLaren). The two boys live in London with their drug-addicted mother and share a strong (and, to be honest, kinda creepy) bond. Jason, while simply trying to return home with some drugs for his detoxing mother, is roughed up by some bullies and ends up running out into the middle of the street. Naturally, since this is a movie, Jason is hit by a truck as soon as he steps off the curb. Jason is killed and Marcus is taken away by social services and put into a foster home. Marcus continues to carry Jason’s cap with him and soon starts tracking down local English psychics in an attempt to talk to his brother again.
Finally, the spiritual aspect is detailed in the film’s most interesting story. This story features Matt Damon as George Lonegan, a psychic who can speak with the dead. After years of being a minor celebrity, George burned out and went into a self-imposed exile. He now works at a factory while his brother (Jay Mohr, who looks incredibly puffy in this movie) keeps trying to find ways to convince George to get back into the business of talking to dead for fun and profit. After George reluctantly gives a reading to Richard Kind, he finds himself being dragged back into his old life.
A lot of viewers and critics have compared Hereafter to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 masterpiece, Babel. Both films follow three separate but connecting stories and both films are concerned with the theme of death and how it connects us all. As well, Babel featured Brad Pitt in a serious role and Hereafter features Matt Damon. The main difference, however, is that Babel was a great film but Hereafter is basically an uneven mess.
Whereas Babel featured three strong stories, Hereafter features 1 compelling story (that would be Damon’s) which is compelling solely because Matt Damon is a talented enough actor that he can apparently perform miracles. He’s probably about as likable as he’s ever been in the role of George but he also wisely plays the role as being just a little bit off. Even though the film makes the mistake of never really going into the details of just what exactly caused George to give up being a psychic, Damon is so good in the role that you’re willing to take him at his word that he had a good reason. Probably the highlight of the film (and one of the few sections to really inspire any sort of real emotional response) is an extended sequence where Damon befriends and the manages to alienate an insecure, single woman played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Damon and Howard have a scene that involves eating while blind-folded that manages to be both powerfully erotic and wonderfully romantic at the same time. If the entire film had been about them, Hereafter would have been a much better movie.
Unfortunately, we’ve got to slog through two other stories.
Cecile La France gives an excellent performance as Marie and the opening tsunami scene is truly terrifying. For someone like me, who cannot swim and risks having a panic attack if she even stands near the deep end of a swimming pool, the tsunami scene was almost impossible to watch. I had to put my hands in front of my eyes and watch the scene through my fingers. However, once she drowns, Marie sees a vision of the afterlife that — as a harbinger of things to come — is rather dull. I mean, with everything that can supposedly be done in movies today, the best that Hereafter can give us is a bland white light. Once Marie returns to Paris and starts her investigation, La France remains a sympathetic presence and the film actually does a pretty good job of showing just how condescending most supposedly “liberal” men are whenever a woman starts to stray from the established orthodoxy. But, unfortunately, her story is just never that interesting. Marie decides to write a book about the afterlife. As a writer myself, I have to say that there is nothing more boring than watching someone else write.
As for Marcus, I was shocked just how little I cared about him or his attempts to contact his brother. I come from a very close family and I have a very strong bond with all three of my sisters and, among them, I am notorious for crying at any movie that deals with that sort of sibling bonding. Yet I sat through the saga of Marcus and Jason without shedding a tear and I felt terrible about it. I really wanted to cry. I really wanted to have some sort of emotional response to the story but I just never believed it. I hate to say this but honestly, a lot of this was due to the fact that the McLaren twins are such bad actors. Director Clint Eastwood has said that he specifically cast them because they weren’t professional actors and therefore, they wouldn’t introduce any false “sentimentality” into the mix. But dammit, it was a sentimental story. Sentiment is not necessarily a bad thing and just because something is sentimental, that doesn’t make it false.
So, what exactly went wrong with Hereafter? The film opens strongly with a terrifying tsunami and the final 30 minutes are also undeniably touching (if also a bit contrived). It’s everything that happens in between those two points that ruins Hereafter. Director Eastwood, obviously looking to avoid that dreaded curse of being sentimental, keeps the whole film very low-key and realistic. Other than the opening tsunami, there are no big wow moments but to be honest, isn’t that what movies are for? If you’re going to make a movie that specifically shuns the wow moment, you better have something compelling (a perfect script or an entire cast giving a compelling performance as opposed to just a handful of them) to take its place. Hereafter doesn’t and, as a result, the movie drags. This, honestly, has got to be one of the slowest, most boring movies I’ve ever seen. If director Eastwood’s westerns and actions films can all be seen as homages to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, I think Hereafter must be an homage to some of Andy Warhol’s intentionally dull films. Whereas Warhol, at the very least, gave us Joe Dallesandro to look at, Eastwood gives us Jay Mohr. It’s not a fair trade.
I don’t know how much of Hereafter should be blamed on Eastwood and how much should be blamed on the script written by Peter Morgan. Here’s a quote from Morgan that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter:
“It’s quite spiritual material, and quite romantic, too. It’s the sort of piece that’s not easy to describe and in the hands of different filmmakers could end up as wildly different films. Quite unlike some of my other material, which I think there were only certain ways that you could shoot it. It’s really not just another boring Hollywood movie with the same old boring Hollywood actors, although I see the point that the public and sick of paying $10.00 to see a movie with same old faces and the same gramma of story telling.”
And to that, all I can say is “Shut up, Peter Morgan!”
This is not spiritual material as much as it’s just a bunch of vaguely New Age platitudes being delivered by a mainstream screenwriter who apparently doesn’t have the guts to come down either firmly for or against an afterlife. This is the type of feel-good BS that leads to thousands of people every year giving up their life savings to some fraud who claims he can deliver messages from beyond. Morgan’s script goes out of its way not to actually define the afterlife. Is it heaven or is it Hell? Is there a God? Do the worthy go to Heaven? Are souls saved? Or are they just ghosts who are waiting for us to be willing to let them go? These are all questions that would have been considered by a good film but Hereafter doesn’t consider them. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It pretends to bring them up but only so the movie can shrug and go, “I guess nobody knows.” And to that I say, either take a position or don’t expect everyone else to pay money just to listen to you duck the question because you’re too scared of alienating mainstream critics or audiences.
(Myself, I do believe that those who love us are always with us in some way even if I don’t believe in a literal afterlife. And while I know that answer might seem vague, you should also consider that I’m not the one spending millions of dollars to make a movie celebrating that vagueness.)
Morgan’s script also make its a point to incorporate real-life events into his contrived narrative. As a result, the London Subway bombings and the Thailand Tsunami are both used as convenient plot points in much the same way that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button used Hurricane Katrina. I felt it was ghoulish when Button did it and, the more I think about it, it’s equally ghoulish in Hereafter. It’s hard not to feel that the film’s saying, “Too bad all those real people died but what’s important is how these events impacted the lives of a bunch of fictional characters.”
Hereafter’s main problem is that it simply tries too hard to be great. You get the feeling that every scene and line has been calculated to make you go, “Wow, what genius!” As a result, even the scenes that work still somehow feel very dishonest. The end result is a very insincere film about some very sincere concerns.