Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Film Review: Hereafter

"Hereafter" **** (out of ****)

What happens after we die? It is a question a lot of us would like to know the answer to. Not to reveal too much about myself but death has always been a big subject for me. The concept was brought to my attention at a very young age and has left an emotional scar which has stood with me til today. That was only part of the reason I wanted to see Clint Eastwood's latest masterpiece "Here-after" (2010).

"Hereafter" follows three separate people. People who do not know one another. There is an American psychic, George Loneage (Matt Damon). He claims to have the genuine ability to be able to contact the dead after a medical illness as a child, which allowed him to get "visions". Then there is a French journalist, Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) who is on vacation in Hong Kong when a tsunami hits. She claims she died and was brought back to life. Upon her return to France her life is not the same. She is no longer able to go about her job. Finally we have twin brothers Macus and Jason (Frankie & George McLaren). Jason dies in a terrible accident leaving Macus unable to function without his brother.

The movie is clearly about death and how we cope with it. Two of these characters question whether or not there is a hereafter. They ask the big questions. What happens after we die?

Actually "Hereafter" has something in common with another movie released this year (get ready for it) Woody Allen's "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010). Both movies are about people looking to connect with someone or something. They are about people so desperate and alone they turn to religion or psychics to answer life's big questions. Even in Allen's film one of the characters turns to a psychic. Allen's film focuses on love and of course Eastwood centers on death.

So where does "Hereafter" side on the issue? Does it support the belief in an after life or not? The movie, correctly in my opinion, never answers that question. George is presented as having a unique gift but does he really? The first time we meet George is when his brother, Billy (Jay Mohr) brings one of his business clients to him, after revealing George's secret. You see George was once famous but turned away from the business. He feels his visions are a curse not a talent. George doesn't want to spend his life with the dead. However the main question, after that first meeting with the client is, does George have any true insights or does he merely supply closure for these damages souls? Through most of "Hereafter" I would say George is the real deal, but, there is a moment at the end of the picture when he meets one of the other main characters. He does not offer good news and for a moment we suspect the next words out of his mouth are not that of a spirit but instead his own as he tries to offer comfort.

"Hereafter" doesn't seem to be Eastwood's kind of movie. It is a movie which relies a lot on emotion. Plus, I've never known Eastwood to be interested in this subject. Last year when Eastwood released "Invictus" (2009) which was also with Matt Damon, my main criticism was the film needed more heart. It wasn't sentimental enough. I thought a better director for that project might have been Ron Howard, who is well known for making effective sentimental, uplifting films such as "Cinderella Man" (2005) and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001). But "Hereafter" has all the emotion "Invictus" lacked.

The main strength of "Hereafter" I feel is the self-reflective mood the film puts you in. The film has a meditative quality. When the movie was over I didn't want to immediately leave. I wanted to sit and ponder what I had just seen. What was the movie really saying? How can I apply lessons learned here to my own life?

The film also has a beautiful look and very strong performances. In the Matt Damon character is seems to get everyday life just right. We can feel George's pain. He is a man who just wants to lead a normal life. He eventually starts to take cooking classes in the hopes of meeting new people. He meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard). Their scenes together feel sincere. It is so rare to find that level of honesty in a screenplay. They flirt and talk in a realistic way. But their romance is short lived. But we don't blame anyone. It had to be. Even that rings true.

Cecile De France and Frankie McLaren are effective as well. Each wants to believe in something greater. Marie is constantly looked down upon whenever she brings up the issue. Her lover, Didier (Thierry Neuvic) explains to her after we die there is nothing. And she should stop thinking about such foolishness. That's a French liberal for you. No belief in God or a hereafter. But Marie is kind of the soul of the film. She researches the subject. She wants to learn more about people with near death experiences. She knows what happened to her and no one can tell her otherwise.

There are some cynical moments though. When Marcus seeks to find answers he turns to psychics, none of whom are able to contact the dead. After a while poor Marcus lies to them and tells them their readings are correct. They are presented as nothing more than frauds, feeding on people's pain and suffering. In these moments we can tell Marcus' heart and spirit are crushed. He will never be able to communicate with his brother again. At these moments we just want to reach out and grab him and tell him it will all be okay. At least I did (what can I say I'm a soft touch).

But those moments are balanced by George. So what is true?

I also thought of "Good Will Hunting" (1997), the movie that made Matt Damon famous, while watching this. His brother consistently tells him because of his gift he has a duty to use it and provide a service to those in need. If you remember in "Good Will Hunting" Damon was a math genius who was told with his gift he too had an obligation to society. He should not deny the world his gift.

Unfortunately "Hereafter" is dividing audiences and the public. The movie has only grossed close to 30 million. A lot of this has to do with a truly lousy PR campaign. The studio made a serious mistake in the way they promoted this movie. Look at the film's poster. You'd think it was another "Sixth Sense" (1999). Yes, Matt Damon sees dead people but this movie has a completely different tone and addresses the material in a profoundly different way than that movie. But that is how the studio tried to sell this movie. Why? Why couldn't they simply let Eastwood be Eastwood? The man has an amazing track record. He has made some of his strongest films to date in these past few years; "Mystic River" (2003), "Million Dollar Baby" (2004), "Changeling" (2008) and his ambitious Iwo Jima films. Why not merely promote it as a Clint Eastwood film. You'd be surprised at how many people would show up for that alone.

I should also point out the film was written by Peter Morgan. A very talented writer who normally writes more political films. He wrote the made for TV movie, "The Special Relationship" (2010) about Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. He also wrote "The Queen" (2006) and "Frost/Nixon" (2008). Naturally "Hereafter" has nothing in common with those movies but at least it showcases Morgan's diversity as a writer.

I hope more people seek "Hereafter" out. Now that it is almost the end of November and December is coming we can expect a lot of holiday themed movies and usually this is the time the studio's release their Oscar contenders. I hope "Hereafter" doesn't get lost in the shuffle. See it. Enjoy it. This is one of the year's best films!