Death Be Not Subtle

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter.

Matt Damon in Hereafter

There’s something admirable about filmmakers who are willing to risk ridiculousness in an attempt to imagine unfilmable realms of experience: life after death, the subconscious, infancy, drug trips, dreams. Even when the experiment fails— What Dreams May Come, The Lovely Bones—the attempt to deliver the beyond has a weird nobility to it. And on the rare occasions that such films do succeed—think of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, or Michael Tolkin’s haunting, underrated The Rapture—the results can be transcendent.

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter(Warner Bros.), for me, fell into the former category. Its vision of the afterlife—indistinct figures milling around in front of a white light—could have come straight from one of those basic-cable documentaries in which people recount their near-death experiences in between cheesy “re-enactments.” And Eastwood’s habitual preference for expounding ideas over developing characters often gives the movie the dull urgency of a tract (though it advances no religious doctrine, and indeed mentions none, with the exception of atheism). Still, I found myself cutting Hereafter break after break, thinking “OK, that scene didn’t work, but let’s see where he goes next.” And this wasn’t because I’m a particular fan of Eastwood—in my view, he’s one of our most overrated living filmmakers—but because this movie’s earnest dullness was part of its charm. I’m totally down with the idea of a slow-moving, somber meditation on grief, loneliness, and death, directed by an 80-year-old movie star. If only the movie had offered me more in exchange for my patience.

Hereafter’s plot (the film was scripted by Peter Morgan, the British screenwriter and playwright who wrote Frost/Nixon and The Queen) proceeds according to the logic of what I’ve come to think of as “the Babel structure,” though this kind of sprawling international narrative no doubt preceded Alejandro González Inárritu’s Babel  (2006). Three separate story threads—one set in San Francisco, one in Paris, and one in London—develop similar themes before finally, in Eastwood’s case a good two-thirds of the way through the movie, they begin to intertwine.

The movie’s opening sequence is its best, because it so matter-of-factly upends our expectations of what an Eastwood film should be. A well-known French anchorwoman, Marie Lelay (Cécile de France), vacationing in a tropical location with her lover, is out shopping for souvenirs when the beachside village is suddenly hit by a tsunami. With no warning—and, blessedly, no hokily suspenseful music—we’re plunged into a disaster movie, and the victim’s-eye view as Marie is hurled along by a wall of water is truly terrifying. She nearly drowns, is pulled from the water by rescuers, and just as they’ve given up on their resuscitation attempt, she coughs up water and returns to life. But what Marie saw during those few moments between death and life—see above, in re: vague figures milling in a white light—renders her incapable of returning to her life as the successful host of a show called Window on the Event. The only event she wants a window onto is what happened to her in that tsunami.

Meanwhile, in scenic San Francisco—every city in this movie is identified by establishing shots of its most postcard-worthy monuments—a forklift driver and retired psychic, George Lonegan (Matt Damon), is being pressured by his brother (Jay Mohr) to get back into the mind-reading business. Since childhood, George has had a gift for communicating with the dead: When he touches a person’s hands, he gets a clear image of the loved one that person is mourning and the ability to transmit messages on their behalf. In fact, he’s incapable of not channeling the dead, which has turned George into a lonely hermit afraid of so much as brushing up against another human being. In an attempt to rejoin the world, George takes a cooking class (taught, disconcertingly, by Steven R. Schirripa, The Sopranos’ Bobby Bacala) and begins a flirtation with an enticing young classmate (Bryce Dallas Howard).

And concurrently, in London—see how long it takes to even set up the plot of this movie?—a preteen boy, Marcus (played, alternately, by twins George and Frankie McLaren) longs for his dead twin brother. When his drug-addicted mother checks into rehab, Marcus goes so far as to steal money from his foster parents to pay psychics to contact his twin. He’s scammed by an series of entertainingly inept shysters, then discovers George Lonegan’s now-defunct page on the Internet …

And, at long last, more than an hour into this stuff, the three stories begin to weave together—but the braid they form is maddeningly loose. The feeling of the last act is one of dispersal and fragmentation, the plot’s energy slackening just when it should build. Marie wanders off to Switzerland to consult with a controversial researcher into after-death experiences (Marthe Keller). Marcus narrowly escapes a subway bombing, perhaps guided from beyond the grave by his all-seeing twin brother. And George flees San Francisco to pursue his (never adequately explained) obsession with Charles Dickens. Eventually, the paths of the three principals converge at a London book fair. I won’t give away what happens when they do—except to say that the encounter between George and the grieving little boy is unexpectedly lovely, and the one between George and the anchor lady unexpectedly lame.

William Maxwell, a novelist and former fiction editor for The New Yorker, once said something simple but heartbreaking about death: “People die and then they’re gone. I’ll never get used to it.” The characters in Hereafter are stuck at that border—the moment when someone dies, and someone else refuses to get used to it, or to give up on trying to understand where their loved one has gone. Though I found Hereafter meandering and occasionally sentimental, I couldn’t help but admire Clint Eastwood’s ambition in taking on—headfirst—the greatest fact of human existence.Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.