Clint Eastwood's movie Hereafter plays no games with its supernatural premise. There's never any doubt that these characters are really connecting with the afterlife. This is what a fantasy made by an unflinching realist looks like.
So here's one more paragraph of spoiler-free assessment of Hereafter before we get into discussing details. I managed to see this film without knowing anything about it beforehand (somehow I even missed watching the trailer) and I got a lot out of it that way. It's not a film that relies on suspense much, but you do get swept up in these characters' journeys. So if you're already planning on seeing it, you should probably stop reading now.
And now, we get a bit more spoilery...
So Hereafter is not on the same level as Eastwood's greatest works as a director, like Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby or Gran Torino. The main problem is the script by Peter Morgan, who's scored in the past with historical recreations like Frost/Nixon and The Queen, but seems to think the audience needs things spelled out in mile-high letters this time around. But Hereafter is still a good, thought-provoking film, and it benefits tremendously from Eastwood's unflinching gaze.
There are basically three main storylines in the movie:
Television show host Marie LeLay (Cecile de France) gets caught up in a tsunami and has a near-death experience, after which she stops caring so much about her career. She keeps seeing glimpses of the world of spirits that she saw when she was dead for a moment, and she slowly comes to realize that she's not alone, and she wants to tell others about this.
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George Lonegan (Matt Damon) has the power to communicate with the dead, but he no longer works as a medium because he didn't want his whole life to be about death. He's isolated because anytime he touches someone, he sees the dead people closest to them. But people keep wanting him to do readings for them, and his pushy brother wants him to get back into the lucrative medium business, so he can never escape from his unwanted talent.
A young boy named Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren) loses his twin brother, and is left all alone in the world. He becomes obsessed with communicating with his dead brother, and starts visiting a bunch of charlatans and fake mediums, none of whom can help him with the huge gaping void in his life. Meanwhile, his junkie mom has gone into rehab, so he's stuck in foster care.
So like I said, Eastwood and Morgan don't play any tricks with their premise — it's made quite clear, early on in the movie, that George really can speak to dead people. And Eastwood is very careful to show us that the realm that George is accessing with his talent is the same one that Marie visits during her near-death experience. In general, this movie goes out of its way to avoid being slippery — everything is exactly what it seems at first glance, and there are no surprise twists, which is surprising in itself for a film about the realm of the uncanny.
The mysteries in Hereafter are much more closely connected to the mysteries that we all deal with in real life, in particular: How do you deal with death? How do you acknowledge its importance in our lives, without letting it take over everything? And not surprisingly, Hereafter isn't about the afterlife at all, it's about death, and how it affects the living.
So the three main characters approach death from three very different directions. George is trying to escape from people's obsessions with the dead and with the afterlife. Marie is battling people's skepticism about the afterlife — but really, she's fighting against our denial of death itself. So they're almost like two sides of a coin. And then there's Marcus, whose only companion is a crushing, miserable grief.
None of these three main characters ever quite becomes as unforgettable as one of the protagonists in Eastwood's classic films. They're all maybe a bit too one-dimensional, and you can pretty much see where their stories are going most of the time. But at the same time, each of these characters has enough idiosyncrasies and random tics that they do feel like real people. (George loves Charles Dickens, for example.) Plus each of the film's three protagonists has moments of real emotional potency where you feel how out of their depth they are, and there's one moment late in the film that will totally kick your ass.
In the hands of a lesser director, Hereafter would be just another melodrama about people grappling with mortality and the meaning of death. But Eastwood manages to elevate the material, through a mixture of incredibly gorgeous visuals and keenly observed human moments, to the level of greatness. For a film that's ostensibly about death, Hereafter is bursting with life. Everything from the terrible beauty of the drowned bodies in the tsunami's waters to the C&H Cane Sugar factory where George works is beautifully observed, and the worlds that all three characters inhabit feel gorgeously realized.
Eastwood takes the supernatural film and renders it with the slow pace and gentleness of his Bridges of Madison County. The result is a new kind of fantasy film: one that's more contemplative and soul-searching and less focused on big spectacle or huge discoveries.
In the end, Hereafter deliberately avoids giving us any huge answers about death, or about the afterlife — even though the afterlife is real in this film, it remains mysterious and unknowable. What we can know is the way that death affects our lives. There's another world, in which everything we've lost and everything we fear is waiting, bathed in a white light that's either disturbing or comforting, depending on how you look at it. This realm of the dead, which can't help encroaching on the living, is always present, no matter what you believe. And, Eastwood suggests, you have to make peace with this land before you take up citizenship there.