Ghost Stories: The vacuous theology of Clint Eastwood's 'Hereafter'
Hereafter” is not a signature Clint Eastwood film. The octogenarian director is far from his males-under-fire comfort zone in this doleful supernatural drama. An iconic agent of death as a performer, Eastwood now ponders its literal meaning from behind the camera.
“Hereafter” is also a departure for British scriptwriter Peter Morgan, best known for fact-based screenplays such as “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon.” His topic is not an actual event or historical figure but rather what, if anything, awaits us after death. Morgan does incorporate recent events, most notably when he introduces the first of three protagonists, the Parisian broadcast journalist Marie Lelay. Vacationing in Thailand with her boyfriend, Marie (played by the Belgian actress Cecil de France) is engulfed by the 2004 tsunami. Not surprisingly, her traumatic encounter with death radically alters her outlook on life.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, there is a man who knows a little something about the boundary between life and death. George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a forklift operator with the ability to see and hear the deceased. Because serving as a bridge between the living and the dead was ruining his shot at happiness, he stopped working as a psychic three years ago. When we meet George, however, he is reluctantly agreeing to give a “reading” to his brother’s business associate.
In a third introductory segment, tragedy divides identical twin brothers, aged 12, who live in a London housing project with their addict mother. The bond between Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) has been strengthened by their having to raise each other and keep social workers at bay to avoid becoming wards of the state. With Jason gone, Marcus is bereft, piercingly if quietly adrift without his protector and soul mate.
“Hereafter” cuts back and forth between Paris, San Francisco and London. Following her ordeal, Marie finds her work as host of a popular newsmagazine program unfulfilling. Taking time off to write a biography of François Mitterrand, she is drawn toward a less prestigious and socially acceptable subject—death. She pens a memoir about her near-death experience entitled Hereafter: A Conspiracy of Silence, which documents similar testimony from others and criticizes establishment indifference.
In London, Marcus is sent to live with a foster family while his mother deals with her drug and alcohol habits. Desperate to communicate with Jason, he devotes all of his energy to locating mediums and clairvoyants. In addition to visiting the “Center for Psychic Advancement,” where he encounters fakes and charlatans, he uses the Internet to research various writings on the afterlife.
Back in the Bay Area, George grows increasingly isolated and forlorn. His belief that his paranormal talent (given a medical explanation, incidentally) is a curse and not a gift hardens. His chief solace comes from listening to Derek Jacobi read Charles Dickens’ novels on tape. One bright spot: after enrolling in an Italian cooking class, he meets an ebullient woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) eager for romance. All the while, his brother (Jay Mohr) presses him to get back into the lucrative psychic business.
As expected, these three stories eventually converge. Unfortunately, when Marie, George and Marcus cross paths in London, “Hereafter” breaks down. They may be haunted, but we are not. Catharsis is achieved in one storyline, despite the nagging suspicion that a Ouija board could have also done the trick. The other two stories devolve into the trivial via equally mundane and preposterous plot turns. Any hope that “Hereafter” might gesture toward a deep, transcendental experience is dashed on faux-spiritual, trans-Atlantic shoals inserted to appease a cross-section of international moviegoers. Temporal comfort may be all that any movie can provide, and the only satisfaction earth-bound characters can logically enjoy. Still, less tidiness and a bit more mystery is preferable to this film’s Harlequin novel resolution.
Sincere and competently made, “Hereafter” holds your attention as it weaves together Marie’s existential hangover, Marcus’ loss and George’s mid-life malaise. The digital graphics used to render the tsunami are effective; and the special effects depicting glimpses of the beyond are restrained and plausible, if overly familiar. The acting is solid. Damon’s Everyman performance fits the matter-of-fact tone the movie takes toward his character’s genuine mediating powers. In their screen debuts, the McLaren twins help limit the story’s potential bathos, while Ms. De Frances’ physical beauty accentuates the ethereal quality of Marie’s otherworldly detour.
Aside from camerawork recognizable from past films (particularly “Mystic River”), what most identifies “Hereafter” as a Clint Eastwood film is the music. The two minimalist jazz themes he composed—consisting of a tinkling piano and twangy guitar—sound recycled and recur with monotonous predictability.
Theologically, “Hereafter” is unhelpful no matter what one’s beliefs may be. Straddling the fence between belief and non-belief, it does not say anything substantive about mortality. God, or any similar entity or force, is never mentioned. What can be gleaned is that, contrary to the opinion expressed by Marie’s boyfriend, the lights do not simply go out when we die—we are not immediately ushered into the eternal void. Some people, apparently, endure in a form that can communicate with the George Lonegan’s of this world. Further, the departed can intervene in the world in small ways.
Presenting the afterlife as a simple ghost story doesn’t give believers or doubters much intellectual sustenance. In general “Hereafter” studiously avoids anything that might be remotely inflammatory to either side. At one point a physician whom Marie interviews at an Alpine hospice argues that experiences that could foreshadow an afterlife should not be summarily discounted by a rationalist society. Evidence, or at least data, exists and ought to be treated in a scientific manner and accorded its due. Unfortunately, the theological relevance of such near-death experiences is never addressed.
Overall, the movie strikes me, if anything, as somewhat Anglican. That is, modest and intertwined with an empirical tradition that has rendered it, at times and in certain places, skeptical about its own truth claims as well as its capacity to comfort the grief-stricken. Admittedly, this resonance may derive partly from the brief appearance of an Anglican cleric, who presides over a funeral service offering standard Christian words of comfort without much conviction.
The film leaves the impression we must not rock the boat by asserting too much and that passionate debate (no matter how well informed) serves only to make everyone uncomfortable. A full-fledged theology or detailed description of the afterlife isn’t necessary. The moviemakers needn’t give certain answers or offer more than the narrative can hold. Yet by aiming at the center—at common ground—“Hereafter” becomes aesthetically and theologically neutral. While every perspective is treated with respect and dignity, middlebrow taste prevails. Accessible and unthreatening, the movie’s generic brand of wisdom is available at duty free shops and bookstores inside any international airport. Few souls will be stirred.
Those yearning for a better, more personal movie from Eastwood will be glad to know “Hereafter” will not be his swan song. Proving the tireless filmmaker cannot be pigeonholed, and raising hopes that a more idiosyncratic and intellectually vivacious picture may be in the offing, he is preparing to direct a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover.