If you watch "Hereafter" without knowing it is directed by Clint Eastwood or executive produced by Steven Spielberg, the momentousness of this two hour and ten minute epic piece of cinema may astonish you. But now you know, so expectations can be duly high.
"Hereafter" sort of creeps up on you in micro slow doses, but despite the slow burn, by the time this narrative tortoise makes it to the finish line, the slow and steady pacing has won (you over entirely). "Hereafter" dishes up a little something for every cinematic sensibility. It's a perfect pick if a group of friends are trying to settle on a movie and each, naturally, has diametrically different taste in genres. "Hereafter" weaves a trifecta: a cerebral, esoteric story for the aesthete, a subtitled foreign film for the international cinephile, and an action/thriller for the adrenaline-jacked, special effects junkie. However, if you're really into the Bruce Willis-esque, high-octane, reality-suspending, action-packed, stunts and explosion snuff, you'll be disappointed to know that the green screen generated natural disaster sequence isn't done to shock and win CGI-on-steroids competitions. The tsunami at the start of the film that thunders turbulently into the tropical coastline and unleashes a sinister swimming pool of decimation and death is depicted as realistically as possible. This destruction sequence takes but a few minutes to level its horrifying impact, but it is the dynamic money shot which sets in motion the down-tempo plotlines that suddenly hush such an explosive start to this complex motion picture.
Eastwood is not a kid in a candy store gratuitously indulging in the special effects. He uses them as a tool in his craft’s shed to reflect the storytelling at the heart of the Eastwood experience. Based on live action footage from the real 2004 Indonesian tsunami, the production crew finesses a high definition, grippingly believable tsunami, not something out of a surreal, cartoon-y video game. This motion picture is driven by a heartfelt story of a near-death experience (NDE) and how acutely misunderstood and stigmatized notions of a hereafter are; the film is not meant to be an over the top adventure movie. Still, mad props (were it erudite to say "mad props") to the CGI team. Think of Oscar-nominated "Titanic" and the more recent film with a tsunami as the film's axis, "The Impossible," in terms of water simulation on a grand scale. Among "special features" available on the DVD is a short documentary on the creating of the tsunami on screen. Effects are largely digitized, but also shot in the ocean and in a special pool with all manner of creative mechanisms to create tumult and a foaming, snarling, rapacious deluge.
After this high intensity start, the film becomes largely introspective with sensitive drawings of a few key characters, each with his or her depth of extremely misunderstood inner worlds. The stunning, visceral visuals mellow to center on poignant concurrent footsteps that tread lightly yet carry increasing magnitude of touching significance. The three sets of footprints in this tryptic include Matt Damon's character, George Lonegan, who delivers a masterwork of acting to portray the harrowing day to day existence of an authentic psychic; Cecile de France's character, Marie Leley, a French investigative journalist swept away by the juggernaut wave and is knocked unconscious but wakes up subtly changed, never to go back to the cutthroat political ambitions that formerly drove her; and Marcus, played by identical twin brothers, Frankie and George McLaren (who had never acted before), a taciturn 12 year old whose identical twin brother is fatally hit by a car. The setting alternates among San Francisco (Lonegan), France (Leley), and London (Marcus). In one symbolic camera shot, Paris is seen from a bird's eye view, with various spoking paths leading to the hub, or epicenter, of the city. Similarly, separate, concurrent plotlines arc and eventually meet in a resolution of intertwined lives.
Eastwood's signature is dramatizing normal people and their weaknesses and defects, he isn't about creating superheros. As he says himself in another of the "special feature" mini-documentaries available on the DVD, "Story is everything. Story is king."
Peter Morgan wrote the screenplay and "Hereafter" certainly tells a spellbinding story of the stigma, rejection, and prejudice that abounds when it comes to the subject of what happens when we die. It is the ultimately taboo subject and what is so deft about this screenplay is that it demands the audience to question our own stance on the possibility of an afterlife, a hereafter, because we are meant to be immersed in the experience the characters undergo. There is not a taut us/them divide where audience can smugly watch the "crazy" psychic talk to dead people, with the prophylactic of fiction creating a sense of safety for the viewers from having to actually believe in this supernatural hogwash. No, the character-driven plot follows very real people, like you and I, and even the most cynical skeptic in the audience will be given pause by the credits.
This is because the NDE that Marie Leley experiences at the outset happens to a person of cynical, rational, journalistic ilk. Leley is someone who never believed in anything without empiric proof, either. But when she almost dies, and does experience the occult subtlety of more to this existence than this lifetime alone, nothing is the same for her again. She now recognizes the judgmentalism and disgrace that "polite society" levy on people who allude to life after death, and she joltingly sees she's being made the fool now, too. The hypocrisy of the competitive world in which she used to thrive (she was a big shot celebrity with her face on ads sponsored by major corporations) now disgusts her because she sees how precarious status can be. The moment she starts talking about a loaded subject heretofore relegated to the cooks in loony bins, she is ousted from the in crowd. But now that she has seen "truth" firsthand, and has pierced the padded fabrications most of society tell ourselves because we are uncomfortable with the unknown, by extension, she forces the viewer to look inward, too. We are tacitly asked to examine how open we really are to realities that may not fit socially acceptable molds into which we've been crammed. Psychic George Lonegan knows the unfashionable "truth" all along (and has paid the price in a world that just isn't ready for it), and London schoolboy Marcus encounters the truth of a hereafter through trauma of losing his best friend and identical twin brother.
You may not come away a believer in a hereafter, but "Hereafter" won't let you turn away from something many of us prefer not to face. For two hours of your life, you may find yourself grateful to be looking directly into the light, because, from now on, you might just be a little less blind in the dark.