The Fountain and Sunshine are two films that tend to receive some of the most vitriolic commentary, eliciting praise or hate. What they also have in common is their mutual exploration of what it means to die: Sunshine, “We’re all stardust” and The Fountain, “Death is the road to awe.” Clint Eastwood isn’t having any of that shit though: in Hereafter, death leads to romantic comedy vapidity.
The film focuses on three different people who are coping with death in various forms: Marie, a French reporter who is almost killed in a tsunami; George (Matt Damon), a psychic whose Peter Parker angst means he doesn’t want his psychic “gift;” and Marcus, who is failing to deal with the death of his twin brother.
The best part of Hereafter is Matt Damon’s portrayal of this beleaguered psychic who just wants a normal life. Given that George’s abilities freak people out, he’s had a hard time making it with the ladies. When George meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) at a cooking course, their chemistry is infectious; during their second meeting the film reaches its highest peak, and Damon and Howard’s interactions have you holding your breath in anticipation. “Stand back folks! This acting!” – and a damn fine example of it. A simple food sampling becomes saturated with romantic and sexual tension thanks to their prowess and Eastwood’s framing, both of which are only topped by the way the evening ends for the couple.
Damon’s story and some solid character development pieces get the film off to a good start, but unfortunately it fails to make it to the finish line. The film is trying to tackle the greatest of human quandaries and is unable to deliver a meaningful answer. Without a proper response, the film turns into a romantic comedy cliché which cheapens the first 2/3 of the film, and in some ways those who are coping with death in the real world.
(This film isn’t the most plot driven tale, but just in case)
SPOILER ALERT, SKIP PARAGRAPHS
The film closes with Marcus receiving a psychic reading from George, which allows him to move on from his brother’s death. Given George’s intimacy issues stemming from his abilities, it’s quite fortuitous that Marie, too, knows all about the afterlife. When George and Marie sit down to have a proper date, romantic string music blares so you know everything’s going to be okay.
The ending suggests that the sole purpose of Marcus is to lead George to Marie, and Marie’s near-death experience to make her compatible with George. Not including the death of Marcus’ brother, thousands died in the tsunami Marie survived; does this mean they all died just so George wouldn’t be lonely? Even if we don’t go that far, the ending leaves Marcus and Marie as cardboard creatures in some romantic drivel.
Without any interesting answers, Eastwood glosses over the painfulness of loss with overwrought clichés and hints that it’s all part of God’s plan as these characters just happen to meet. Setting up these separate tales revolving around the same subject matter undermines any dramatic payoff as we anticipate the event we know will connect them. Thus, in message and format, Hereafter is too simple and insulting. Throw in a few moments where Clint Eastwood Marie hops on her soap box to pontificate the “scientific evidence” about the afterlife, and the film has become an alienating mess.
Matt Damon’s great and a film dedicated to his character would have been enticing – too bad.
*Just as an FYI, I don’t inherently dislike Eastwood’s work. You might want to check out my essay “Why is Clint Eastwood Performing Penance?”