Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hereafter / ***½ (PG-13)

George Lonegan: Matt Damon
Marie Lelay: Cécile de France
Marcus/Jason: Frankie McLaren and George McLaren
Didier: Theirry Neuvic
Billy: Jay Mohr
Melanie: Bryce Dallas Howard
Jackie: Lyndsey Marshal

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Peter Morgan. Running time: 129 min. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language).

Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” is a movie like those that aren’t made anymore. It’s a supernatural drama, not a thriller. Although it deals with the afterlife, it’s about the people left behind, the living affected by the afterlife. It isn’t about ghosts. It isn’t about scaring the audience with the abstract fantasy of what happens when we die. It’s a melodrama about how we deal with death and therefore life.

The movie follows three different characters, each trying to come to terms with three different aspects of death in their lives. Marie (Cécile de France, “High Tension”) is a political news talk show host who survives a tsunami while vacationing and comes home to France changed by her near death experience.  George (Matt Damon, “Green Zone”) is a psychic in San Francisco, who can genuinely talk with the dead. Although people are desperate for his particular gifts, he sees them as a curse and only wants to lead a normal life. The British boy Marcus is a twin (both brothers are played by both Frankie and George McLaren) who loses his brother in a traffic accident. His dependence on his brother makes it difficult to move on, a problem complicated by the fact that his mother is fighting with drug abuse and the state chooses to remove him from her care.

All three of these characters are damaged by their relationships with death. George cannot hope to have a romantic relationship, because there is such a thing as knowing too much about someone. More accurately, knowing too much about someone who knows you know too much is unbearable for that person. Billy (Jay Mohr, “Jerry Maguire”), George’s brother, pushes him to return to being an active psychic. Billy doesn’t understand how negatively it affects George’s life. George can’t turn his abilities off, so he has no choice about knowing secrets about the people he touches. When anyone close to him learns of his abilities, they insist on seeing how accurate they are. George doesn’t blame them. He knows that curiosity is human nature. But, he can’t control their reactions, and neither can they.

Marie actually dies for a couple minutes during the tsunami. She had attempted to save a little girl, whom she continues to see in visions after she returns to France. Her visions of the afterlife distract her from her job, and her producer/boyfriend  (Thierry Neuvic, “Tell No One”) suggests she take some time off to write a book she’s been contemplating for some time. Her visions drive her to change the book to a study of the afterlife and near death experiences like her own. Soon she finds that, while once a highly respected news figure in Europe, she’s become a pariah.

All this leads to a scene between Marie and her boyfriend that exemplifies Eastwood’s and screenwriter Peter Morgan’s (“The Queen”) expert handling of this melodramatic material. When Marie learns she’s been permanently replaced in her anchor position, she accuses her boyfriend of being responsible for her condition because she was out shopping for gifts he neglected to get his children when the tsunami hit. He responds with shock and asks her to clarify. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter, “ she says. It doesn’t matter, and these filmmakers understand that. They understand that people will lash out at each other like that, but in the end such a detail doesn’t matter, whether or not it’s valid. The filmmakers never bring it up again. What matters is Marie’s journey. Eastwood is smart enough not to over dramatize what is already melodramatic material. A lesser filmmaker might divert focus to who’s to blame rather than keep the melodrama focused on Marie’s journey to cope with her life altering experience.

This intelligent economy can also be seen in Marcus’s storyline. Marcus continues to search for a way to contact his dead brother through psychics after he’s placed in a foster home. He causes great distress with his foster parents because he will disappear and steal money, and they can’t find any way to connect with him. A lesser film might concentrate more on the foster parents’ struggle with him, or worse, turn the civil servants who remove him from his mother into monsters. Here it’s obvious everyone wants to keep him with his mother, but her drug problem makes that impossible. Eastwood and Morgan respectfully mention all these details, but they keep their focus firmly on Marcus’s search to find closure with his brother. Even once that comes, it’s not some trite resolution that makes Marcus’s life all roses again. It wasn’t roses to begin with. But, there is satisfaction.

I’m sure many people will complain that this whole movie is too slow and nothing much happens in it. There’s an expectation watching the movie that these character’s lives will intersect, but again, that’s not the point. It’s Eastwood’s ability to eschew expectations and simply meditate on these characters that gives it its power. This is a movie that drains you. It makes you feel worn, and once that washes over you, you’re brain falls into the same space as its characters. It’s not so concerned about plot as it is with the actual lives of these characters.

The supernatural may seem like a strange subject matter for a director like Eastwood, but it’s not about the dead. It’s about the living and how they live their lives. It’s about how important it is for us to find the right place to live the life we want. That isn’t such a foreign subject for Eastwood.

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