Combustible Celluloid
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With: Matt Damon, Cécile De France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr, Thierry Neuvic, Lyndsey Marshal, Richard Kind, Steve Schirripa, Derek Jacobi, Mylène Jampanoï, Jenifer Lewis
Written by: Peter Morgan
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language
Running Time: 129
Date: 09/11/2010

Hereafter (2010)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Spirits in a Mysterious World

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If I say that Clint Eastwood's Hereafter is one of the best films of 2010, it may conjure up images of the film critic as a dreamy crackpot, grinning and believing in a gooey, joyous afterlife and cooing "don't worry, be happy." Let me tell you right up front that I have no opinion about the afterlife, and it seems to me that Eastwood does not either. Though the movie deals with death and the possibility of something beyond death, it's firmly rooted in the problems and emotions of three characters that are very much alive. And in telling these stories, Eastwood shows off filmmaking so fluid and skilled that it makes you weep with joy.

In Eastwood's last film, Invictus, he took on a story a bit too big for the parameters of one movie. Here he manages to imply bigger themes, but stays focused on the three characters, and everything comes into glorious balance. Let's start with Marie LeLay (Cécile De France), a French TV news reporter who is romantically involved with her producer (Thierry Neuvic). They are together in a luxurious resort hotel when Marie decides to go out for a quick shopping excursion. A tsunami hits and wipes out half the island. (It's a stunning visual effects sequence that deserves some Oscar notice.) Marie survives, but before she regains consciousness, she has visions of an afterlife. Returning to work, she finds she can think of nothing else and begins to research a book on the topic, much to the chagrin of her colleagues.

Next we meet George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who, thanks to a childhood sickness, is able to receive messages from the recently departed; he once did "readings" for people, but found the work too draining. He now lives a quiet life, in San Francisco, working in a warehouse, and falling asleep listening to Dickens on tape. (In an odd moment, Eastwood includes a shot of the building in which I sat, watching the movie.) George takes cooking classes and meets the pretty Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), but his "gift" may never let him have a normal life. Jay Mohr co-stars in this section as George's brother, and Richard Kind as one of his customers.

Finally we meet the English twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie McLaren and George McLaren). Jason is older by twelve minutes and is generally the one in charge, while Marcus is the "quiet one." Jason arranges to make their drunken, drug-addicted mother (Lyndsey Marshal) look good for the social workers that occasionally, threateningly, visit. Unfortunately, a terrible tragedy occurs that brings the brothers closer to the hereafter than they could have expected.

Eventually, the story -- by the gifted scribe Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) -- finds a way to assemble these characters in one place, but until then Eastwood finds a beautiful balance between all three separate crossing storylines. Usually these kinds of tales are weighted too heavily on one side or the other, especially considering the heft of a Hollywood star in one segment. Here, every scene flows beautifully from one to the other, and interest never flags. The three main characters are divided by space, but united by a certain kind of shift in their reality. They seem unaffected by the daily throb of life; it's as if they are hovering just outside the rest of the world, and they feel connected before they are literally connected. Of course, Eastwood doesn't draw any concrete parallels between them; it's just a feeling.

Eastwood is something of a "classical" filmmaker, in that he doesn't have a specific, show-off style; rather, he might be described has having an "invisible" style, like that of Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh. In the old days, his films might have been lost in the shuffle, but today he stands out in a field of show-off directors and/or directors with no idea what they're doing. In the simplest of scenes, Eastwood shows complete command; he knows exactly how to enter and leave a room, where to place the characters and the camera, and how long the whole thing should take. There are dozens of examples, such as the frantic one in which the twins prepare their home for the social workers' visit, or the one in which George eats alone in his kitchen, and the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the empty, dark, lonely apartment.

Like John Ford, Eastwood can occasionally succumb to a creaky, stale joke, but in Hereafter, he's not in the mood for laughs; he sustains a thoughtful, wistful tone throughout. It's his most purely emotional film since The Bridges of Madison County. It has an almost Ozu-like serenity, but less grounded in reality. It's as if, at age 80, Eastwood is pondering his time on earth and his mortality, but not in a melancholy way. Rather, he seems to be settling on the notion that life is about connections, that we each enter and affect the lives of those around us, and that's what counts. (And Eastwood can affect so many of us, through his movies, without ever meeting us.)

I hesitate to say that Hereafter feels like a final film, in that I hope it's not. I hope Eastwood keeps making films until he's 100, and beyond. He certainly has the energy. As of now, he has already announced his next movie, a biopic about J. Edgar Hoover. And Eastwood has something going for him that most other octogenarians do not have: he has the attention of young people. When he tells a story, people everywhere listen. Indeed, he made the biggest financial hit of his long career, Gran Torino, just two years ago. He has enjoyed one of the most remarkable careers in movie history, finding ways to appeal to mass audiences, but continuing to grow artistically throughout six decades. So now that he wants to tell a story about the borderline between life and death, let's not worry about who is a dreamy crackpot and who isn't. It's better just to sit back and enjoy one terrific movie.

Warner Home Video has released a terrific Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital copy combo pack. It comes with one terrific extra: the full-length version of Richard Schickel's documentary The Eastwood Factor. Additionally, Eastwood and Damon participate in a behind-the-scenes look at the film (no Eastwood commentary track, though). I saw this twice in the theater and I was ready to see it again.

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