Hereafter stands as proof that when talented people get together to make a film, the results are far from locked down. Clint Eastwood continues to be prolific in his output – despite being in his 80s – but his latest is an unfortunate misstep that hopefully his forthcoming J. Edgar Hoover biopic (starring Leonardo DiCaprio) will rectify.
Gathering together big American stars – Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard – with international ones such as Belgian actress Cécile de France, Eastwood directs from Peter Morgan’s (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) script. The story takes the ever-popular multiple strands approach. Damon plays George, a man who may or may not possess the ability to converse with the dead – the film seems to suggest that he can, but his ambiguous and informal ‘readings’ leave room for doubt (a sensible choice). De France plays a young, popular news anchor and Frankie and George McLaren play twin brothers in London. These stories take place across the globe, but naturally script contrivances conspire to bring them together as time goes by.
Damon is a good actor who has been doing interesting things recently, but his presence isn’t enough to rescue this muddled film. De France is his equal – perhaps even the strongest element of the whole thing – but it matters little. The opening set piece in Thailand should be shocking and tragic, but in reality it is lukewarm, let down by sub-par CGI. It also ends with a laughable image of a child’s teddy bear stranded in flood water that sets the tone of things to come.
There is an oddly saccharine feeling about this film that is grating and off-putting, even when it is trying so hard not to be. The film concerns itself with the age-old question ‘what happens when we die?’ (two of the strands involve characters Googling that exact question) but in reality has very little to say about it. George’s inability to touch people without contacting the dead and his wish not to perform any more readings is the film’s strongest outlet – his burgeoning relationship with Melanie (Howard) being one of the few character scenes that works. Indeed, despite De Frances’ performance, Damon’s third of the film is the best.
But even that suffers badly under the laborious, underwhelming script, which gets George to tell us in no uncertain terms (in case we hadn’t guessed so already) that his psychic abilities are “not a blessing; they’re a curse.” And he says it twice, presuming perhaps that we’d fallen asleep the first time. The third of the film set in London fares worst. It feels nasty to denigrate young actors but the twins here give awfully stunted performances, fatally lumbered with the script’s most clichéd, uninspiring moments. At least the second half of the film doesn’t call for Frankie McLaren to deliver too many lines of dialogue.
Hamstrung by the flaws in the script, the film’s crass sentimentality is laid bare. It isn’t half as deep as it wants you to think it is. Marie’s (De France) quest to find out about the afterlife leads her to an institution where – after watching a young woman die in bed surrounded by her family for no reason – she is given a box of ‘scientific evidence’ regarding experiences of death by a woman in a lab coat. Then she writes a novel about it.
All of the strands are weak in their own ways, but the film at least would have had redemptive moments if it wasn’t structured so badly. It really is a drag. The second half feels like an eternity – perhaps George really can interact with the afterlife; he could well be in it. And then we get the climax, the meeting of the strands, which, while not without interest (and a smidgen of emotive quality) is anticlimactic and, in one instance, painfully sentimental. It rounds off a thoroughly disappointing film. Here’s hoping Eastwood has got his dud out of the way with J. Edgar on the way.