2011. PG-13. 129 minutes.
A life that’s all about death is no life at all…
I’ve never had a near-death experience. I’ve never been clinically dead. Heck, I’ve only been knocked out with anesthesia once (to have 4 wisdom teeth pulled). I do know people who claim to have had the experience of dying and coming back, and from a young age I’ve been fascinated with supernatural things: ghosts, astral projection, and things that go bump in the night, so I picked up Hereafter on DVD at my library on a whim (ok, I really just needed something to balance out all the romantic comedies I was lugging home for the Thanksgiving weekend).
In Hereafter, three stories come together in an examination of what happens when we die. Marie (Cecile De France), a hard hitting reporter, has a near-death experience during the 2005 tsunami while on holiday with her lover. It’s a miracle that she survives after almost drowning, and that they find one another in the aftermath. Accustomed to asking the tough questions in expose interviews, Marie is preoccupied and then obsessed with her experience, and strives to understand what happened to her while she was clinically dead for a number of minutes.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Jason and Marcus (Frank & George McLaren) are prepubescent twins with an alcoholic/addict mother. She doesn’t take conscientious care of them on a good day, but when Jas is hit by a car and killed, she goes off the deep end and Marcus is placed in child protective services custody with a lovely foster couple. Marcus struggles to adjust to life without his other half. His brother was the chatterbox smartmouth who looked out for him, and he wishes there was a way to reconnect.
Meanwhile, in the US, George (Matt Damon) is a pyschic — the real deal — who can, upon physical connection with another person, tap into the messages their deceased loved ones have to share before they move on. Although he once had a career (money, fame and fortune) from his gift/curse, the burden and attention grew overwhelming. In spite of his greedy brother’s (Jay Mohr) attempts to push him back into the spotlight, George claims satisfaction in his laborer’s job and solitary lifestyle. Could George have the answers Marie and Marcus seek? And, how will the three cross continents to come together, as we are sure from the beginning they will?
Set in London, Paris, and San Francisco, this partially subtitled film has an international tone in style, setting and character. Visual clues like the Eiffel Tower establish where were are in each scene, and there is never any confusion as to whose story we are peeking in on at any given moment. The pacing has a deliberate ebb and flow like a tide between moments of disaster that are theatrical but not over-the-top sensational and quietly dramatic: the tidal wave that wipes out a third of a population; a London tube bombing that kills hundreds; a single tear from Marie who learns nothing is as secure as she thought; a heartbreaking moment of insight when George’s cooking class companion insists he “read” her.
The acting throughout feels self-assured and real; no false notes, no hysterics. I believed these were real people with real emotions and real experiences. Marcus is shell-shocked, George is resigned, Marie is eager. The performances are subtle, perhaps verging on so understated that coupled with the slow (for American audiences) pace, I can see why some reviewers would say this movie lags.
Multitalented director Clint Eastwood has composed a haunting soundtrack that amps up in dramatic moments and is poignant with strings in others. Mirrors figure heavily into the cinematography, perhaps to capture the reflective nature of the film? There is the mirror image of twins, using mirrors to contact the dead, shooting into a mirror and then changing the camera angle to focus on the actual subject.
The film is not without flaws. I questioned why George had to explain his process and form a “connection” with his seeker before getting his messages, when in several scenes, just touching someone’s hand brought on the unwelcome visions. And this is a minor thing, but it’s hard to keep suspension of disbelief when there are technical errors: in the cooking class George registers for to seek some sort of connection with others, there is no coverage of knife skills. The instructor chef welcomes his students and gets them chopping tomatoes. Damon’s knife skills are hideous, and no self-respecting chef would let that go; it would be a teachable moment, especially given the fact that one character comments on another who has brought her own knife to class. As an avid home cook trained by a Le Cordon Bleu graduate in proper knife technique, this made me cringe (if you don’t know, and have a burning desire to cut yourself less often, check out this tutorial).
Finally, while Marcus’s story was resolved, I still had questions about George and Marie, so it ended on a frustrating note for me. It didn’t stop me from enjoying Hereafter, but it did jar me out of the zone. This doesn’t change my own beliefs (which are mostly of the “there are still a lot of things we don’t–can’t–understand” variety) but I’m still thinking about this film a few days later, and to me, that’s always a sign that it was a good investment of my time.