Imagine taking a road trip to the Grand Canyon. The drive is long and tiresome. Your legs ache and you find yourself getting irritable as the trek drags on and on. Then you arrive -- just as the sun is rising. The American landmark stretches out before you, accentuated by vibrant rays of red and gold. Breathtaking.
That was how I felt watching "Hereafter," a poignant film that is more about the destination than the journey. Director Clint Eastwood's thoughtful drama is slow and plodding (one audience member was audibly snoring at the screening I attended). It is not for the Vin Diesel or Freddy Krueger crowd that demands its thrills fast and furious.
Rather, "Hereafter" is deep and deliberate. It requires patience and emotional maturity from its audience. Those willing to give it will be rewarded with a cinematic experience that is complex, heartfelt and spiritually uplifting.
Three characters in different parts of the world are united by death. A devastating tsunami leaves famed French journalist Marie LeLay (Cecile de France) with remarkable glimpses of the afterlife; soft-spoken British lad Marcus (played by real-life identical twins Frankie and George McLaren) struggles with the untimely death of his twin brother Jason; and San Franciscan George Lonegan (Matt Damon) has an uncanny ability to communicate with the deceased -- whether he likes it or not.
Marie's professional life starts to unravel as her near-death experience consumes her. She sets out to pen a novel about the hereafter, much to the chagrin of her philandering lover/boss. George's "gift" is a constant barrier to intimacy, rearing its ugly head as he tries to kindle a romance with cooking-class partner Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard). But Marcus suffers the most as the traumatic loss of his brother shatters his world. His heroin-addicted mother can offer little help, so he sets out to seek the aid of those with metaphysical expertise.
And the lives of these three individuals seem fated to intertwine.
The film's production values are impressive, which is to be expected with any Eastwood picture. Lighting is used effectively and the cinematography is often striking. "Hereafter" was shot on location in San Francisco, Paris, London and Hawaii, so the varying locales are a visual treat. The music is appropriate but tends to lull the pace substantially (there is a lot of plunky piano and soft violin), and the story borderlines on melodramatic.
The actors all perform admirably, although the McLaren twins are a bit out of their league. (Marcus is not very emotive save for some periodic tears.) Damon is particularly compelling, proving once again that he is a very strong leading man capable of carrying almost any film. Howard serves up a terrific performance in her minor role, and De France shines with a charismatic portrayal.
In 2002, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" was met with decidedly mixed reactions. Some lauded it as a masterpiece while others condemned it as a faulty misfire. It went on to be nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. I expect "Hereafter" to similarly divide viewers. There is a soulful depth that many may find hard to grasp, especially while munching on Milk Duds or buttered popcorn.
Eastwood's enlightened endeavor -- perhaps a subtle commentary on his own mortality (the icon celebrated his 80th birthday this year) -- presents the afterlife in a peaceful light instead of as something morbid or terrifying. And that sort of optimism is easy to applaud.