Clint Eastwood is our finest living director. He tells sentimental stories without gloss or pretense. Every frame counts, but he isn’t afraid to linger on a scene. He trusts his characters and the narrative — which means he trusts his actors and screenwriters. You won’t find any extravagance serving only the director’s vanity (pay attention James Cameron and Ridley Scott). Nor does he create gassy action sequences to pander to the box office (or the bean counters at the studio).
Eastwood takes this style to an effective extreme in Hereafter, the story of three lives haunted by death. Marie is a French TV journalist whose near-death experience changes her personally and professionally. George is a factory worker with the ability to convey messages from the dead to their living loved ones, a faculty he finds oppressive. Marcus is a young London lad who loses his twin brother and whose mother is a junkie. We watch these lives unfold slowly across the span of a year, each attempting to deal with his or her own burden, until all three cross paths in London in the film’s final act.
Every time I watch a Matt Damon performance, I become a bigger and bigger fan. For a leading man, he’s got great range — note how different his George is from Jason Bourne or Will Hunting. He reminds me of Jimmy Stewart — not in his physcial stature, but in the way he endows his characters with understated integrity. Here he plays George as a melancholy and reluctant psychic, continually trying to distance himself from his unique gift, but failing when prevailed upon. We watch as one such episode sinks a budding romance, and we sympathize with his situation.
Cecile de France is a lovely actress who portrays Marie as an intelligent woman searching for answers to the riddle of what happens when we die. She comes across as simultaneously fragile and courageous.
The young twin actors (Frankie and George McLaren) who play the twin brothers do a fine job. From IMDB it seems as if they were mixed and matched on the set, so either one might have been playing the part of the surviving brother Marcus. They are not called upon to do a lot of acting, other than being reticent and looking despondent, but they do so well, and the part is sweetly written. In losing his brother and being taken from his mother, Marcus could have been a character from Dickens, which is appropriate because its George’s quest to learn more about old Boz that sets the final act in motion.
I had expected from what I’d seen and read about this film that it was going to be about the afterlife. But I’m glad to report it is not. Even though it contains a small element of the paranormal, Hereafter is ultimately about the ways in which death touches us all, and how we find solace for loss in the company of the living.
There are certainly convenient coincidences that help drive the film to its satisfying conclusion. I see these bits of serendipity as part of the point of the story. Just as death can strike from out of the blue, so can life. We are all feathers in the wind and we might as well enjoy the journey.