by Richard von Busack
THE OPENING of the morose and oatmeal-colored Hereafter is an act few films could follow. It’s a flawlessly animated tsunami crashing into a tropical island. When a disaster strikes in a movie, it arrives to punish us for not loving one another. The disaster is preceded by one of those squabbles that could strike any vacationing couple (boiled down: “You go out and buy trinkets; I’ll stay here and sleep”). Swept into the tide and clonked by an automobile, Marie LeLay (Cécile De France) almost joins the Choir Invisible. She is rescued just as she has a vision of human beings standing around a glowing plaza. She’s seen the Hereafter itself.
Director Clint Eastwood, working from a juiceless, sub–M. Night Shyamalan script by Peter Morgan, goes off in two other directions. We meet a too-earnest Matt Damon as George Lonegan, reluctant San Francisco psychic who is working at a factory to avoid using his gift. Before we can get a sense of his life, we cut again, this time to a pair of young twins (Frankie and George McLaren) in slummy London, whose mother is a junkie trying to get clean.
How these varied souls will be lassoed together by fate is for them to know and us to find out. LeLay’s career as a Parisian newscaster declines as she becomes obsessed by her vision of the dead. The twins are separated at death. And Hereafter seems as if it will never get started.
What’s the appeal? We hear that the dead are nurturing their pain; if you had a heart attack, it still hurts. Deathland looks like an airport concourse—not unlike that 1977 Tom Schiller short from Saturday Night Live in which the first thing you see in the next world is a take-a-number machine. The blue-white heaven is as bleakly lit as Lonegan’s sad apartment and the concrete housing project the twins inhabit.
Lonegan takes a night class and learns to cook Italian food (nice to see The Sopranos Steve Schirripa teaching it). He’s practically mugged by an enthusiastic newcomer (Bryce Dallas Howard, who displays a puppyish eagerness that’s refreshing in five minutes and annoying in 10). Hereafter’s height of sensuality is a blindfolded taste test that recalls the weird Rourke/Bassinger games in 9 1/2 Weeks; the perviness of the moment fails to wake Lonegan from his cataleptic trance. Meanwhile, having a book advance to write what sounds like Mitterand for Dummies, LeLay decides to tackle instead the “conspiracy of silence” that keeps people from describing their brushes with the afterlife. “People get quite irrational about this, but the evidence is irrefutable,” says a doctor (Marthe Keller) at a Alpine hospice who believes in the White Light Express.
That word “irrefutable” is the essence of Hereafter’s unforgivable earnestness. Not to be too blunt, but Eastwood’s age may have turned him toward these Last Thoughts; one might prefer the work of the younger man, who had a more sanguine attitude toward death.