Clint Eastwood crafts a Babel all his own with Hereafter, a trifurcated tale of death, grief, and the great beyond that finds the director succumbing to eye-rolling corniness. Screenwriter Peter Morgan's original story is peppered with offhand references to contemporary concerns (the global economic crisis, European immigration strife, real-life terror attacks), yet unlike in The Queen or Frost/Nixon, his prime focus here is less political than supernatural.
On vacation in the South Pacific, French TV reporter Marie (Cécile de France) almost drowns in the 2004 tsunami. Meanwhile, a young London boy is run over, thereby leaving his identical twin, Marcus (Frankie McLaren), to deal with a junkie mother and new foster home. And in San Francisco, George (Matt Damon), a former psychic, struggles to suppress his power, telling his brother (Jay Mohr), “It's not a gift, Billy, it's a curse!” All three have been touched by death, a shared experience that, in the film's great insight, makes them feel sad and alone. It's a non-bombshell unworthy of Eastwood's refined aesthetics, though the director shoulders considerable blame for this tripe, which through its conception of the afterlife as a bright-light void populated by silhouettes à la Professor Xavier's Cerebro device, as well as via George's Rogue-like avoidance of touching others' flesh for fear of absorbing visions of their deceased relatives, proves embarrassingly indebted to X-Men.
As in the collaborations of Alejandro González Iñarritu and Guillermo Arriaga, Hereafter generates drama not from its standalone vignettes, but instead, only from the mystery of how they'll eventually intertwine. However, before that revelation arrives to tip the proceedings into full-on sentimental spiritual mush, replete with an arbitrary Charles Dickens-Derek Jacobi subplot, the 80-year-old Eastwood's latest saga about mortality (after Gran Torino) is content to just aimlessly meander alongside its three continentally separated protagonists, all of whom find it difficult to make human connections after their brushes with the grim reaper. In an effort to cope with her natural disaster trauma (portrayed in a CG'd intro sequence with bobbing camerawork that viscerally situates the viewer in the rampaging floodwater), Marie abandons her cushy job and ditches plans to write a book about Mitterrand in favor of penning a personal investigation into the hereafter. To research that tome, Marie goes to a rural clinic, where through an open door she insensitively watches a family sit bedside as their beloved exhales her last breath, and then, upon turning around in the hallway, is told by a doctor that—profound wisdom alert!—we still don't know where people go after death. Indeed.
Similar unintentionally funny exposition mars entire portions of the film, which has everyone speak in such overtly meaningful ways that no genuine meaning emerges. “Death is not final, it's merely a beginning,” intones a priest at the funeral of Marcus's brother, while Billy tells George about his ability, “It's what you are. It's who you are. You can't run from that forever.” As for the existence of an afterlife, Marie's doctor-sage claims, “The evidence is irrefutable,” a screamer of a pronouncement given the unconvincing generic-religion fantasy proffered by Hereafter.
The friendly ghost of Marcus's brother knocks the hat off his head so the kid will avoid dying in 2005's London Underground terrorist bombings, and therapeutic closure is ultimately achieved thanks to George's superpowers. That's no spoiler, since it's preordained that peace and solace will be conferred upon these characters, considering that George's psychic skills are designed as an easy-way-out plot device to simplify the terrible process of grieving. Still, even before George—through “reading” Marcus and Marie—awards everyone a happily ever after, Eastwood and Morgan prove uninterested in complicating their fairy tale, which so unambiguously and heartily embraces the view that a magical, wonderful hereafter is real that it actually has Marie position herself and kindred near-death-experience survivors as victims of nonbelievers' prejudice.
Suffice it to say, envisioning Marie as an oppressed minority is absurd, but no sillier than much of the surrounding action, be it Marie's publisher rejecting her afterlife manuscript but then finding a new house to put the book out (how generous of him!), to Marcus randomly assuming the role of matchmaker for George and Marie. George's earlier rapport with fellow cooking-class student Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) delivers a brief emotional jolt; a scene in which the two take turns blindfolding and feeding each other different foods depicts budding love as a beguiling sensory feast. Yet as with Marie's affair with her TV producer, this relationship serves only to reinforce the material's superficial portrait of both mourning and the burden of knowledge, which is as fraudulent as the charlatan psychics Marcus visits.
Aside from Damon and Howard, the cast seems lost, and Eastwood's modest, somber direction is an awkward fit for Morgan's ham-fisted plotting and pathos, which abounds with tawdry elements (drug abuse, parental neglect, child molestation) that sensationalize rather than offer enlightening perspective on the themes at hand. Marie may argue at story's end that society has a long way to go before it can truly confront issues of death, but if Hereafter is our means of doing so, I'll stick with denial.