Those looking for answers to life, in the now and the later, best look elsewhere than Clint Eastwood's 'Hereafter'. Those looking for questions would be better served making their own list and checking it twice for this film can barely muster up the time to send us home with anything to think about, other than how one of the world's most celebrated directors can team up with one of the most interesting writers of recent years and produce such a unchallenging dullard.
The story opens with French anchorwoman, Marie (Cecile de France) and her boss/lover being caught in a deadly tsunami that wipes out a good portion of the beach resort where they are staying and the surrounding markets. Marie barely survives the disaster, and while unconscious experienced visions of angels or souls or some lighted heavenly presence. This is a gift that actually belongs to George (Matt Damon) back in the states, though he has warded off doing it under the belief that it's more of "a curse" than a gift. His brother (Jay Mohr) coaxes him to do it for a client who recently lost someone and though he seems well versed in the John Edwards shtick, he is most definitely not a fraud.
With one nearly dead, and a second who wouldn't be her conduit from the afterlife if you paid him, we need an actual death to bring out this holy trinity. Over in London twin brothers, Marcus and Jason (George & Frankie McLaren) are trying to keep their mother in the good graces of social services. Running afoul of some bullies, the younger one takes a face full of truck and is dead on the spot. Once the inevitable shock wears off and Marcus is transported into another foster home, he begins searching for anything that will give him a little more time with his brother; a search that inevitably includes a lot of false prophets. Meanwhile back in the U.S., George has decided to take up cooking lessons and is luckily partnered up with the lovely Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard). Back in France, Marie cannot shake her near-death experience leading her to be replaced on the air while she explores this phenomenon in book form.
Looking down at a screenplay whose front page reads 'Hereafter', the wealth of possibilities that can be opened up with each page is at all-time high. From the horror movie on down, talking to ghosts and paranormal experiences have opened our minds up to the possibility while renown atheists like George Carlin and Bill Maher have preached otherwise. Non-Science Fiction or not, the great in-between has always been one of the great mysteries worth exploring. As long as definitive proof is not offered one way or another, both sides can engage in a fascinating debate of their beliefs and move on with their lives through the inevitable stalemate. But what a debate if either educated side opens their ears to the others.
There is no stalemate to be found in 'Hereafter', nor is there any debate. Damon's George has the gift for certain. Marie believes she saw something, but we know it is the exact same thing that George sees in his readings. And the little boy is saved from a real-life tragedy from what might seem like luck at first but is revealed to be actual divine inspiration in a scene that - along with the opening tsunami - challenges the ridiculously insulting twist ending to 'Remember Me' for the most exploitive of the year. This is not to state that a film cannot utilize all the powers of the medium (and reality) to offer messages of hope in the face of doubt, but Peter Morgan's (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) script beats around the bush so emphatically that it is easy to forget this is a film about what comes next at all. Instead it is more like someone who watched a bad M. Night Shyamalan film - or an M. Night Shyamalan film - and filtered it through Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's flair for perennially grief-stricken characters who will eventually cross paths by sheer coincidence.
Marie and the boy at least eventually get around to the search, both inner and outer, in trying to understand what their purposes are now. George's story is ever the quandary as we wonder where along the lines he hated comforting people. From what we can tell it is more the annoyance of strangers than any serious pain caused in his life. If his purpose is to discover the God-like creations around our lives that make the now worth living ("A life that is all about death is no life at all."), then that fails the moment we are meant to believe his skirt-chasing hours are numbered the moment he puts the ladies in touch with their departed. Nothing in Marie's conversion from hard-edged political muckraker to spiritual guidance counselor is believable and the boy's journey through the worst kind of charlatans is cliché-ridden and arrives far past the point that our attention has lapsed into any of these three finding closure. Though if you were placing bets as to what modicum of deus ex machina would bring these three characters together - a live reading of Little Dorrit by Derek Jacobi probably made nobody's list.
Eastwood certainly grabs our attention at the start with the kind of special effects sequence he has not been known for outside of 'Firefox' and 'Space Cowboys'. Some of the effects work is a little shoddy, but it is a well put-together sequence that suggests we are not in for the usual Eastwood. Methodical storytelling has been an Eastwood trademark for years, but never has a film of his felt so lifelessly uncertain of its own intentions. The thought that Peter Morgan might be a common name and thus not the writer responsible for 'The Queen', 'Frost/Nixon' and 'The Special Relationship' might be one of the few hopes a filmgoer familiar with his work has nit placing the blame at his front door. ,Hereafter', though makes 'The Other Boleyn Girl' seem action-packed in context, and whatever might have been in his head when writing it fails to crossover to the page and certainly not onto the screen. To consider all the films and television shows that have hovered into this territory, the failure to even accidentally expand upon one of their ideas is not only shocking but somewhat unforgivable.
'Contact', 'The Prestige' and South Park's dissection of cold-reading psychics are all far more valuable conduits into letting the science-vs.-religion discussion sneak up on you. Even this year's 'Agora' and 'The Last Exorcism' are more successful at digging into this kind of material. Eliminate science from the discussion altogether and this still leaves much to the imagination of those whose hearts are invested in the proverbial angels and demons. Those willing to forgive Eastwood's direction on the principle of some European sensibility are forgetting how low-key (even with its doses of grandiose sentiment) his dramas have always been. It is doubtful that any of 'Hereafter's defenders can say that it holds a candle next to the likes of 'A Perfect World', 'The Bridges of Madison County' or 'Million Dollar Baby' unless the intention was to burn it. More likely they will be including' Hereafter' amongst titles like 'Blood Work', 'The Rookie' and 'Breezy', arguably the worst of his directorial career now being challenged with perhaps the very worst.