Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: "Hereafter"

"Hereafter" is not a typical Clint Eastwood film. But then, is there even such a thing anymore?

North of 80, Eastwood continues to be the rare filmmaker who takes genuine risks, trying different genres and approaches to directing with seemingly every new turn. Perhaps it's because he was so pigeonholed in his acting career in the 1960s, '70s and '80s that he's spent the last 20 years throwing changeups from behind the camera.

Here's a guy who made a stolid World War II picture ("Flags of Our Fathers") and then followed it up with a better one, in Japanese subtitles, that portrayed the same battle from the perspective of the enemy ("Letters from Iwo Jima"). He also directed Oscar-caliber performances out of Angelina Jolie in the under-appreciated "Changeling" about an obscure 1920s child disappearance case, and Hilary Swank in a movie about girl boxers ("Million Dollar Baby") that packed a sneaky, sentimental haymaker.

Eastwood even starred as a crotchety retiree facing off with hoodlums in a film ("Gran Torino") that was essentially a rebuke of his own tough-guy star persona.

Even when the results are plodding and predictable -- "Invictus," the wildly overrated "Mystic River" -- we never lose the sense we're watching a talent perennially in search of new stories to tell, and new ways to tell them.

"Hereafter" will go down as one of Eastwood's minor works, but it's still a worthwhile one.

It's a tender, probing drama about an international trio dealing with death -- and what comes after. The original screenplay by Peter Morgan is deliberately paced and even languid at times, as the audience awaits the inevitable denouement when their storylines will intersect.

Matt Damon plays George Lonegan, a real-deal psychic who ditched budding fame and fortune for an anonymous job at a factory because he couldn't handle the emotional turbulence that follows in the wake of his readings. "A life that's all about death isn't any kind of life at all," is how he put it to his opportunistic brother (Jay Mohr), who wants to cash in on the gift George considers his curse.

It's an intentionally cramped, interior performance by Damon as a guy with an extraordinary ability who yearns for a mundane life. George purposefully fills his days with distraction, from listening to audio books of Charles Dickens to taking an Italian cooking class, where he stumbles upon an attraction with another student (Bryce Dallas Howard) that lights a tiny spark of hope in his ascetic existence.

The second leg of the plot revolves around Marie LeLay (Cécile De France), a famous French television anchor who is nearly killed by a tidal wave while vacationing in South Asia, in the film's pulse-quickening opening sequence. Actually, technically she was killed, traveling through a wispy world of light and indistinct figures before being revived.

It sets her off on a wild jaunt to explore her near-death experience, and take on an establishment that dismisses such tales as hokum. As a result, she finds herself being elbowed out of the mainstream success she craves, both professionally and romantically.

The weakest third of the movie centers on Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren), a British boy whose twin brother was killed in a car accident. They're clever lads who used their wits to outsmart the social services investigators who wanted to take them away from their junkie mother (Lyndsey Marshal).

When he's assigned to foster care after the tragedy, Marcus seeks out a string of bogus psychics to find some way to continue their sibling bond beyond the grave.

"Hereafter" is less concerned with the metaphysics of existence after we die -- contrasted with the celestial, CGI-assisted playground of Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" -- than the earthly tribulations of people still alive who struggle to cope with the brush of Death's hand.

While George's ability to reach across that divide drives the story, the conclusions the film reaches are unsettled and may be unsatisfying for audience members who crave crisp closure. Only Eastwood is daring enough to make a movie more concerned with raising niggling questions than answering them.

3 stars out of four

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