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WARNING: UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY SPOILERS, FROM WHOSE (JASON) BOURN NO TRAVELER RETURNS
“Hereafter” needs a subtler touch than director Clint Eastwood brings. Eastwood has a nasty habit of choosing sides. His is all good, the other is all bad, and doubt and ambiguity are for saps (or, in Eastwoodian, “punks”). This is true if the subject is a San Francisco cop, a lady boxer, or the most important question human beings can ask:
What happens when we die?
Every religion in the world, and half the charlatans, promise to answer that question. Eastwood, and screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”; “Frost/Nixon”), now do. Without doubt or ambiguity. You got a problem with that...punk?
We get three main storylines. In the first, a pretty French TV journalist, Marie Lelay (Cecile de France), finds her career, and life, sidetracked after she is swept up in a tsunami and dies for an unspecified amount of time. This tsunami is monstrous and terrifying and the best part of the film. After getting knocked out, Marie drifts in the water while a toy bear, floating above her, stares down. We hear a heartbeat until we don’t. The screen goes dark. Then we get blurry images, silhouettes, and mumbling. It’s like that scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when the aliens emerge from their spaceship. Are these silhouettes the living, whom she is leaving, or the dead, who are greeting her? At first I assumed the latter, but then two silhouettes move towards us, and one gives us a sense of resuscitation, and, voila, suddenly we’re back, with someone on a rooftop giving Ms. Lelay mouth-to-mouth.
Enjoy that scene. The movie is called “Hereafter” but this is the last glimpse of the hereafter we’ll get.
The second storyline follows George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who, as a child, had a near-death experience, and ever since, whenever he touches someone, zap, he can communicate with this person’s deceased loved ones.
(BTW: Do the communicatees have to be “loved ones”? Are they the deceased who mean the most to this person or the deceased for whom this person means the most? Might George touch my hands, for example, and suddenly be talking with someone I barely knew but who secretly loved me and is just, you know, kinda hanging around? Are there stalkers in the hereafter?)
George’s older brother, Billy (Jay Mohr, looking heavier), a businessman, wants to exploit this talent—he’s developed a website and everything—but George wants to ignore it completely because the after-effects are somewhat deleterious. The connection isn’t immediately broken and he seems not quite there, floating in this middle kingdom, listening to dull radio in bed, fully-clothed. “A life about death is no life at all,” George tells his brother. So he’s trying something else: a working-class job at the C&H plant and a once-a-week Italian cooking class to meet people. Mostly, though, he’s alone. Eastwood does alone well but he does it too often here. I think we get three shots of George eating by himself while a guitarist on the soundtrack picks out a few lonely chords.
If that’s not pathos enough, there’s the London storyline, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), twin boys who save their pennies, or maybe their ha’ pennies, to pay for a self-portrait for their mum, who, alas, is a drug addict. It’s like something out of a silent melodrama: They care for her with one hand while fending off social services with the other. One morning she sends Marcus on an errand, but at the last instant, Jason, the more talkative, baseball-cap-wearing brother, goes, and I immediately thought, “OK, he’s dead.” It reminded me of the anxiety accompanying the first scenes of the HBO series “Six Feet Under”: Who’s going to die and how? Here we know who; it’s all about how. Ah, bullies: Eastwood’s favorite trope. No wait, Jason runs from the bullies. So he’ll run right into an oncoming car, right? Wrong. It’s an oncoming truck.
Those are our three storylines—all related to death and the hereafter. One assumes they’ll connect eventually. And they do—eventually—but Eastwood, like any 80-year-old, takes his time getting there.
In the meantime: Lelay takes a leave of absence from her weekly news magazine show to write a revisionist bio of former French president Francois Mitterrand, dead now 10 years, but turns in three chapters on the hereafter instead. She’s shocked that her publishing house isn’t interested, and shocked again when her weekly newsmagazine, and accompanying Blackberry ads, go to a younger, Asian-y woman. Shame. She was so proud of those ads.
Lonegan begins a flirtation with a cute woman in his cooking class, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), in which each’s interest in the other is Hollywood-obvious. But during prep for a home-cooked meal, his secret, his superpower as it were, is slowly revealed; and when she insists he try it on her, he finds out things she doesn’t want revealed. And there goes that. He’s back to eating alone with the guitarist and the few lonely chords.
Marcus, meanwhile, is put into a foster home with well-meaning parents, but he’s quiet, and lonely, and wearing Jason’s baseball cap, and doing whatever he can to communicate with Jason. This includes visiting charlatans who claim to communicate with the dead. His eyes dim the second he realizes they’re charlatans.
In this way, each character deals with a perhaps culturally specific response to their association with the hereafter. Marcus gets British charlatans. Lelay, who definitely experienced something when she died, gets the French, the center of modern, progressive culture, who definitively know nothing happens, we just die. C’est tout. And Lonegan definitely communicates with the dead, but instead of treating this as the greatest discovery in the history of mankind, which it is, his brother treats it as a way to make a coupla bucks.
Eventually (there’s that eventually) all three converge at a book convention in London. Marcus is with his foster parents, Lonegan, who loves Dickens, is attending a Derek Jacobi reading of “Little Dorrit,” and Lelay is shilling her book in stilted English. The meeting place also makes sense. What better locale than a convention for a dying industry?
Lonegan, lonely boy, is of course enamored of Lelay, chic Frenchwoman (welcome to the party, pal), but does nothing with it. Marcus, meanwhile, recognizes Lonegan and convinces him to use his superpower to communicate with Jason.
This is the fourth example of communication with the hereafter we have in the film. The first, Lelay’s, is visual but vague, while Lonegan’s two previous encounters—with his brother’s neighbor and with Melanie—are more about helping the living with their personal issues. The dead are so understanding that way. The neighbor’s dead wife encourages her hubbie to marry again, to her former nurse, June, with whom he was secretly in love. Melanie’s dead father apologizes for sexually abusing her. None of the living ask the obvious question: Hey, what’s it like to be dead?
Marcus has a bit of Dr. Phil in him, too—he tells Jason to stop wearing his baseball cap and get on with his life—but, bless him, he at least gives us a glimpse of what it means to be dead. Quick answer? It’s fun. “You can be all things and all at once,” he says through Lonegan. “And the weightlessness!”
That’s the shame of “Hereafter.” It posits that none of us, except a chosen few, are interested in what happens when we die, when all of us are interested in what happens when we die. We’re just tired of the answers we keep getting. Including, now, Eastwood’s.
October 23, 2010
© 2010 Erik Lundegaard