As a filmic whole, Hereafter may not measure up to the best items on the menu of Clint Eastwood’s remarkable recent run of films. But its soft spots of sentimentality and some stilted narrative plotting are counteracted by a strong and essential virtue: Here we have one of the most effective and non-hokey Hollywood films ever to ponder that ineffable, unanswerable question, “What happens after we die?” Surprising as it might seem to find Eastwood—the tough guy, laconic cowboy icon—posing that question, it is perhaps less surprising to find that he brings to the subject his requisite blend of emotionality, social inquiry, and storytelling moxie, not to mention a smart use of music (Eastwood’s primary extra-cinema passion).
British writer Peter (Frost/Nixon) Morgan’s script is a clever multinational, composite character study of people whose encounters with—and obsessions over—death have impacted their ability to deal with real-time life as they know it. Matt Damon is a psychic with a hotline to the world of the dead who chooses to leave that “career” behind (akin to the crime-film archetype of the burnt-out detective or private eye taking on just one more case), and Cécile De France plays a French TV journalist processing her near-death experience after a tsunami. In another corner, young Frankie McLaren (a touchingly expressive actor whom Eastwood chose because he wasn’t an actor) is a boy in London whose twin brother passes on, and is desperately seeking contact. As a testament to Eastwood’s cinematic ease of expression, he deftly guides these disparate characters into a convergence that feels more natural than laced with mystical hooey.
Just as John Huston produced some of the more intriguing and offbeat films of his life in his last 15 years (beginning with Fat City and ending with another mortality-ponderer, The Dead), Eastwood continues his great late-period stretch, drawing on his wellspring of wisdom. In this case, he has produced a slow but steady and engaging reflection on mortal matters, a subject beyond the pale and far different from what we’ve seen in Eastwood’s filmography thus far. Then again, the filmmaker keeps expanding on and deviating from our expectations, generally getting younger in his seasoned age.