Clint Eastwood’s recent directorial ventures have usually taken a pronounced look backwards. His World War II dyad Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima; the historical drama Invictus; even the contemporary drama Gran Torino all focus on what has gone before. With Hereafter, he turns his lens towards what is inevitably to come to all of us.
Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) is a Parisian news anchor on a getaway with her show’s director in Southeast Asia. On the day they are to leave, she goes to buy some gifts for his children, and is caught in the path of a tsunami crashing rough the shoreside city. She survives and returns to France, but she’s convinced she saw something while under the water, and her vision won’t let her go.
Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren, interchangeably) and twin boys living in London with a less-than-stellar mother. She seems to be making efforts to improve, since she sends Jason out to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for what they suss out to be a methadone analogue of some sort. On the way back, some older boys start to bully him around, driving him into the street and into the path of an oncoming truck.
George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a factory worker in San Francisco, but he used to be a medium. He’s trying desperately to divest himself of his former career, since as he tells his brother “a life that’s all about death is no life at all.” Unfortunately, once people find out about his abilities they can’t really let it go, and the negative patterns repeat over and over again.
Many reviewers give their opinions about whether the movie endorses or rejects the idea of an afterlife, which usually comes down to the reviewer’s own preconceptions. It’s amazing how everyone seems to find agreement here. But really the movie doesn’t answer the question one way or the other, and really it’s never even asked. Whether an afterlife “really” exists and whether George can “really” talk to the dead — both in the context of the movie itself, of course — is beside the point. And that’s what George is actually telling the audience: the movie is not about the dead or about what comes after death; it’s about the living and how they go about the all-too-human human project of coming to terms with such an overwhelming concept as death.
Some people find their answers in religion, which offers various takes and generic platitudes that seem more geared to using death to win converts than to actually answering the question. Some people go in for sundry paraphysical or extrasensory theatrics, which seem clearly designed to separate the questioners from their money. Some seek reassurance and closure, while some decide that the secrets kept by the dead are better left buried with them.
And some wave away all such questions, satisfied that there really is nothing else after the curtain goes down. But despite the clean and spartan intellectual argument for that position, it completely ignores the humanity of the questioner. I defy anyone with a heart to let that be the last word to an eight-year-old boy mourning his twin brother, with no attempt to help him find meaning in so cold and hard a world. A flat “nothing” is no answer at all, but a method of evading the question in the first place.
So no, there are no solid answers in this film. It’s chilly and bleak, shot in greys and greens, and Eastwood’s unflinching realism makes it absolutely wrenching to watch the physical and emotional devastation that besets one character after another. But by the end there is one hard fact presented to be taken away: we are not alone in the end.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail. Marie is the only major female character.