Heaven help us all.
Has Clint Eastwood, the macho man known for hanging desperados high and moody downers like “Mystic River,” turned into an old softy?
Kind of. In “Hereafter,” his soulful exploration of the great beyond, Eastwood drops the tough-guy facade and deals with his most heartfelt subject yet: our demise.
His last film, “Invictus,” a rah-rah crowd-pleaser about Nelson Mandela unifying a divided South Africa through soccer, sent out an inspirational message that a change was brewing.
But no matter how exciting it is to watch a master director dive headfirst into existential matters that are thoroughly ignored by Hollywood, there’s no denying that “Hereafter” is foiled by a screenplay that sputters out during a sappy final act.
At least the first two-thirds of the film works very well; parts are profound.
It opens in spectacular fashion with French TV jouralist Marie Lelay (Cecile de France) getting brutally swept away by a tsunami in Indonesia. It’s a special-effects jaw-dropper, staged grippingly by Eastwood.
Battered and drowning, Marie stumbles up to death’s fuzzy doorstep, then departs from it. Her brush with mortality catapults the hard-hitting journalist into a humbling metaphysical investigation.
The most heart-wrenching, and satisfying, story belongs to London schoolboy Marcus (played by twins George and Frankie McLaren).
After an accident kills his twin brother, a despondent Marcus further sinks into despair when separated from his druggie mom. Abandoned and incomplete, he is becoming his own specter while grieving for his dead brother.
The least successful character turns out to be George (Matt Damon), a Bay Area psychic who sees his “gift” of talking to the dead a curse. Lonely, he takes the occasional client when prodded by his brother (Jay Mohr).
George works at a factory and takes a night cooking class in San Francisco, where he encounters another looking-for-love lost soul (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Eastwood makes each scenario atmospherically different, framing George in shadows, adding a grainier texture to the film stock during Marcus’ tale and tenderizing Marie’s journey with a lighter look.
He draws out convincing performances from de France and the McLarens, boys guaranteed to make you sob. Less successful is Damon, who goes for a listless and solemn George.
“Hereafter” never realizes its lofty ambitions, and winds up delivering wise but well-worn advice heard before: enjoy life, learn to love, let go of the past.
That’s a bit of a letdown considering what has preceded it. But maybe, just maybe, those pat slogans carry even more weight in the hereafter. Guess we’ll have to get to the other side to really find out.