Boasting a long and illustrious career with impressively few inconsistencies, Clint Eastwood’s films are always awaited with a sense of privilege and expectant awe. Beyond hype, it is a flawless craftsmanship that brings cinema-goers back for more as they are treated to masterpiece after masterpiece – from Changeling to Million Dollar Baby.
In the wake of 2009’s Invictus, a true story featuring Matt Damon as a South African rugby player recruited by Nelson Mandela in a bid to unite a nation through sport, Eastwood has opted to change lanes and tackle a subject hitherto unexplored by the director (unless of course of include his uncredited turn in 1995’s Casper. I don’t.): the paranormal. Known for his compelling characters and gritty realism, can the man behind Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers bring the afterlife to life, complete with his trademark stamp of quality?
Hereafter is a good movie, it is both a beautifully shot and (largely) well acted tale of duty and bravery, treating the paranormal with a respect and delicacy that you do not often see. As a result, the hokum often associated with such spiritualism is somewhat tempered by the care and earnestness with which it is explored; backlighting the beyond and allowing only subtle influences and unobtrusive coincidence to illustrate the connection between our world and the next. In this respect, Eastwood succeeds in demystifying the hereafter in a touching yet cheese-free manner.
However, Hereafter is far from the majesty we are used to, the director’s reunion with Matt Damon failing to engage the audience as firmly as their previous effort Invictus managed so unequivocally. This is largely the result of the film’s ensemble nature, splitting the action jarringly between Paris, London and San Fransisco. Retaining a repetitive order throughout, we are thrust from one narrative to the next without sufficient time to get a feel for each individual character as the episodes pile up.
Understandably wrapped up in their assorted issues, the paranormal elements of the story struggle to support the gravity of each character’s respective traumas and burgeoning obsessions. As Marie, Jason and George continue to alienate themselves in their individual pursuit of answers, the detachment – present throughout – grows in prominence. It is not until the arrival of Bryce Dallas Howard at chef school that the movie comes to life, her few scenes outshining many of the larger moments contained within the narrative. She is a revelation as the inquisitive, sensual and ultimately fragile Melanie, doing more with her few lines than the rest of the admittedly competent cast.
Furthermore, while Marie’s story boasts gumption and determination, and George is allowed to have fun with his newfangled ray of sunshine, the British element falls flat and stays there. Although Lyndsey Marshal breaks hearts as struggling mother Jackie, identical twins Frankie and George McLaren are substantially less convincing. Drawing attention to his evident inexperience, the film grinds to a halt whenever the twins are left onscreen alone. Worse still, a scene utilising the London bombings as a plot device is fumbled in comparison to a contrastingly exhilarating tsunami opening. While such set pieces open the narrative successfully, they only act to exaggerate the tedium of less engaging scenes.
While undoubtedly an Eastwood film, there are other influences at work. It is hard not to feel the presence of executive producer Steven Spielberg as the narrative nears its end and the numerous threads threaten to converge. While a union is expected from the outset, a series of measures to reduce the obtrusion of plot necessitating character invariably leads to an even greater feeling of contrivance. Having the characters narrowly miss one another well into the films notably generous running time teases audiences a plot device too far, the inevitable family unit created by the three main characters ringing of Spielberg’s most commonly derided trope. It is an unnecessary subtext which stands at odds with the considerable geography standing between them.
A film promising to bring some gravitas and respectability to an easily prayed upon subject matter, Hereafter is disappointingly unengaging. Although elevated thanks to a thrilling opening set-piece and some genuinely solid performances (after Dallas Howard, it is Cécile De France who impresses most), Eastwood struggles to craft a captivating story out of an unwieldy number of subplots. Beautifully shot and with numerous touches of greatness, it is definitely not the disaster which many will make it out to be.