Release Date: February 10, 2011
Everyone likes to be welcomed. Whether it’s at the door of a restaurant or classroom, the encouragement we receive from the people standing there helps us look forward to the experience we’re going to have on the other side. But would we feel less assured if the employee admitted they had no real idea what happened when you went through the door? Clint Eastwood’s new film Hereafter offers some hope about life after death but ultimately founders on its ignorance of the world to come.
Hereafter stars Matt Damon as George Lonegan, a man genuinely capable of communicating with the dead who has opted to work in a factory. The tension of the film rests on his decision not to embrace the knowledge at his disposal:
Billy Lonegan: “You have a duty to do it because you have a gift.”
George: “It’s not a gift it’s a curse.”
Billy Lonegan: “You can’t run from it. It’s who you are.”
Swirling around George’s life are the separate tales of Marie, a French journalist who experiences the death and destruction of the 2004 Tsunami, and Marcus, an English schoolboy whose twin brother dies in a road accident. Both are separately searching for an understanding of the hereafter and their journeys eventually intersect with George at a London book fair.
You can appreciate why Matt Damon’s character considers his gift a curse. Not only does it prevent him from living a normal life – “Knowing everything about someone seems nice,” he tells one inquirer – but he ultimately can’t offer people the comfort they desire. A bereaved mother weeps, “Please. I just want to talk to my baby,” but the truth is that it’s the separation that breaks her heart. Death remains a barrier we can’t bridge, even if we were able to speak with those on the other side.
Clint Eastwood’s involvement as director / producer was always going to generate high expectations. Unfortunately Hereafter doesn’t live up to them. Matt Damon delivers an excellent performance as a desperately unhappy psychic, but the film’s three stories don’t knit together well. Hereafter opens strongly with the most convincing recreation of the Boxing Day Tsunami I’ve ever seen, but struggles on at a snail’s pace afterwards. And Marie and Marcus’ personal exploration of the afterlife hardly touch on the millennia of experience accumulated by established religions. Instead they concentrate on the visions accompanying more modern near-death experiences.
Strangely, I can understand why these fringe stories carry such weight. They are personal accounts. Psychic mutterings and dry sermons pale into insignificance next to stories from people who have actually been there. But what Hereafter’s accounts hold in common are a brevity and an uncertainty that is ultimately unsatisfying. The film’s afterlife is a vanilla one full of white light where “I can be all things and all at once,” and there is room for everyone, even the pedophile who left this world unrepentant. The film dodges most of the big moral questions, predicting only happiness but saying nothing about the human conviction that justice must be done.
However Hereafter does hit one nail squarely on the head. George Lonegan is not interested in profit or power; if he speaks at all it’s because he wants to bring people peace. And George is right: questions of life and death are too important to peddle for personal gain. His failures, though, rise from his lack of knowledge. He is in fact the welcomer who hasn’t been on the other side of the door. That’s why I think there is much more comfort to be found between the pages of the lowliest hotel Bible than this multi-million dollar film. There you can meet a man who personally spent three days in the grave and returned to speak to hundreds about it. A man whose knowledge of the hereafter is personal, specific, concerned and complete.