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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

MW on Movies: Hereafter

Hereafter (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 2010

I liked Hereafter. Want to make something of it?

Few moviemakers have divided American movie critics so rancorously as Clint Eastwood once did — and maybe as he does again with his new picture Hereafter. Part of the reason is that we’ve know him as an actor and director so well for so long, that we tend to take his work personally. You know: Here’s ol’ Clint, knocking on our door with another of his shows…

That should be a good thing. Movies thrive on a fantasy sense of companionship with the stars or directors, and Eastwood has often been both, ever since Play Misty for Me in 1971. But familiarity has sometimes been his curse, making him too much of a target, pro or con. That famous tall once-violent profile of his, and the shadow it drops across his work, can make Eastwood’s partisans look like an automatic cheering section and his thumbs-downers a would-be hit squad, with both sides trying over-strenuously to pull him into or kick him out of a pantheon, maybe just on the basis of his latest movie.

Eastwood is 80. Most of the evidence is in. Frankly, if he were as bad as his blasters seem to think, some perhaps still taking their cues from the late, renowned and brilliant Eastwood-hater Pauline Kael, he would probably have gone the way of all old macho-hunk stars and be costarring this year in The Expendables. (Then he‘d probably get a good review from the worst of his detractors, something about shedding his pretensions and at last showing us a good time.)

Hereafter won’t change people’s minds much, though so far, it’s split Rotten Tomatoes, the Internet movie critic‘s compendium, right down the middle. Some very smart critics like it, and some very smart critics (including friends of mine) don’t. And I’ve got to admit I had doubts myself when I walked out of the theater — not about the Afterlife (in which I tend not to believe) nor about Eastwood (in whom I do), but about the movie, which is really a pretty unusual piece for him.

Hereafter was written by Peter Morgan, the British bio-drama specialist who wrote the scenarios for The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon and others, and it was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg (the boss who suggested Eastwood as director). It’s a supernaturally slanted but soberly done, clear-eyed and unsettling drama about life after death, an intelligent, non-dogmatic film that accepts the possibility of soul survival.

The movie twists together three story-strands on the theme set in different countries — one about a French newswoman who nearly dies and recalls what it was like, one about an American factory worker with a seeming talent for communing with the dead, and one about a lower-class British boy who‘s lost his twin brother in a fatal accident and desperately wants to find him again — and keeps moving them forward on separate tracks until the inevitable Crash of a climax.

Hereafter is a workmanlike, well-crafted film, and, predictably, it never goes all mystical and M. Night Shyamalan-ish on us. But it packs some wallops, beginning with a stunning vision of personal apocalypse that haunts the whole movie thereafter: a wondrously well-staged and very convincing tsunami. As we watch, swept along by the kind of technology Eastwood and his usual collaborators rarely exploit, a great wave roars like a huge gray specter out of the sea around the city, and it smashes down, flooding the streets, submerging the buildings, and drowning all visible people. That tsunami fatefully captures TV newswoman Marie LeLay (Cecile de France), who’s on a holiday with her lover-producer Didier (Thierry Leuvic), as she shops for curios from street vendors. (Didier is safe and sated in their hotel room.)

In images of spooky inexorability, caught-head-on without hysterical cross-cutting or Michael Bay slash-a-second stuff, Marie races the wave, unstoppable. Death seems near, here, inevitable. She and we both see the oft-mentioned white light and dark figures supposedly glimpsed by many people pulled back just from the brink of dying. (I had a very cool, very smart, very insusceptible, very good friend who was inches from death by a heart attack, and he saw them too.)

Then, at the last minute, she’s pulled back to life and air by matter-of-fact rescue workers, combing the ruins. From then on, or at least soon afterwards, Marie eventually becomes a true believer, sacrificing her job, her reputation, a book contract (a lucrative assignment to trash Francois Mitterand), some friends and her lover (news-babe-magnet Didier) to investigate and write instead about the white light and the afterlife she barely missed.

Interwoven with this first Hereafter tale is the second, involving George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a boyishly frank San Francisco factory worker who was once a famous, and apparently legitimate, psychic. George dumped it all to preserve his mental and emotional well-being, and now is being pulled back against his will toward his old metier and life (and those huge old paychecks) by his determined mover of a brother Billy (Jay Mohr).

Following George’s path, briefly or not, are an old man (Richard Kind) in search of his departed wife, Derek Jacobi (himself) whom fan George meets at a book-signing, and a cutie-pie, flirty fellow cooking school student (Bryce Dallas Howard) who unwisely summons up his gift.

Last of the stories, and the one that usually would have held the screen by itself, is the tale of two London twin boy brothers, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) who live with their drug-addicted, poor mother (Niamh Cusack) and are torn apart when Jason is killed in a traffic accident. It is Marcus, scouring the Internet for some way to reconnect with his lost brother, who finally sets all the interconnecting threads and wheels in motion.

Ever since his 2003 TV film Henry VIII, scriptwriter Morgan has mostly done dramas drawn from real life and history –and he and Eastwood give this movie the feel of reality heightened, of something that might actually have happened, even though we know it didn‘t. That mix of mythic storytelling and stylistic realism is part of the director’s signature, and also that of his team’s.

Eastwood’s cinematographer here, giving it a ’50s noirish feel, is longtime colleague Tom Stern, who replaced Jack Green, who replaced Bruce Surtees (of Siegel‘s Dirty Harry and Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me), who was a neo-noir specialist whose nickname, like Gordon Willis’, was once The Prince of Darkness. (Stern is a prince of some special darkness too.)

Clint’s cutter was the even longer-time Joel Cox, along with Gary Roach. His production designer, James J. Murakami, replaced the late, great Henry Bumstead and started with Eastwood on Letters from Iwo Jima. And Eastwood’s Hereafter composer was his longest-lived colleague of all: himself, doing another of his Windham Hill streetwise Erik Satie-gone-Thelonious Monk turns. I will concede he’s not as good a jazz pianist/composer as Monk or Bill Evans. Or, for that matter, Erik Satie.

But he still makes a hell of a picture. What’s most impressive about Hereafter is, first of all, that Eastwood had the guts to do it, to make a movie so far beyond his usual ken, one that was bound to be heckled as schmaltzy, New-Agey, sluggish and so old-school it’s out to lunch. I don’t think those are fair assessments, though Pauline would have loved to read them. But Eastwood just doesn’t flinch from even the script’s worst snare: the sense that the screenplay is proselytizing for supernatural explanations, that it’s trying to sell us the hereafter.

I don’t think it is, any more than the Twilight shows are trying to sell us on vampires, or George Romero‘s movies are trying to peddle zombie insurance — or that Eastwood himself wanted us to believe he was a lightning-draw gunslinger when he made the Leone movies. Hereafter isn’t dealing with a recognizable fantasy tradition, like those shows. It’s dealing with something, the afterlife, that many, or most, people believe, and that many would like to believe. But the attitude I sensed was speculative, open-minded: “Maybe it’s there. Maybe it isn’t. We don’t really know. But here’s what it could be like…“

Morgan is a witty, sophisticated, well-read and very knowledgeable writer, and also a compassionate one. (His parents were both refugees, his father a German Jew, his mother a Pole; “Morgan“ comes from “Morgenthau.”) And all those qualities, except maybe the wit (which the movie could use more of) are on ample display here. I wouldn’t call Hereafter as masterful a job as Morgan’s biographical screenplays. But it has most of the good qualities of his earlier work, and it was obviously much tougher to do, not least because we’re so un-used to serious movies about the supernatural, so much more accustomed to horror-house thrill rides, or campy bloodbaths, or eerie sleazy movies about slashers running amok. But it’s only when you try to see “Hereafter” as some of the spooky movie kitsch it’s not trying to be, that it seems too strained or schmaltzy.

I don’t like the mostly expository sequence with Marthe Keller as Swiss afterlife expert Dr. Rousseau, who debriefs Marie on tales from the beyond; it’s a Viveca Lindfors sort of part that’s a little beyond Keller‘s range, and maybe it needed a Liv Ullmann to make it real. This is the one time when Morgan and Eastwood do seem to be trying to sell life after death, trying to push an idea rather than exploring it, or evoking an emotion, or letting us feel with the characters.

But I liked almost all the rest. I really enjoyed most of the London scenes with Marcus on the streets or in the shops or on a very sinister subway platform (one more demonstration, after Mystic River and Changeling, of Eastwood’s surprising affinity for the terrors of childhood). And I liked the way the director insists on using French-language dialogue and subtitles in Marie’s sections, and the film‘s portrait of a comfortable bourgeois life falling apart when Marie went off-the-road, and the good tough way she responded to it.

I admired Matt Damon, a wonderful actor, and by the way he absolutely grounds, in everyday rhythms, the conversations with the dead, And I was pleased by Jay Mohr’s push-push as Billy, and the sudden warmth of Richard Kind’s Christos after George locates his wife. And I liked those cooking-school scenes with George’s very careful, thoughtful culinary routines and Bryce Dallas Howard’s pushy, flirty seduction (exactly right), and the way her character suddenly lets go.

That’s why Eastwood’s shoot-it-like-it-is philosophy on scripts, his laid-back direction and his let-them-act credo with actors works so well. (On Mystic River, he let Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, all actors who are directors themselves, go off and work their scenes together on off-time, and the results, which included Oscars for Penn and Robbins, were obviously worth it.)

As a director, he and his team provide a rock-solid backdrop, and he usually puts the characters in a perfect, well-crafted trap — of crime, of war, of violence, of show biz, of drugs, of sexual exploitation, of life itself — then lets his actors tear their ways loose in the ways that feel right to them. It works. In “Hereafter,“ he and Morgan deal with one of the great, obsessive themes of all history and religion, but they treat it as something ordinary, normal, something we might all experience.

In many of Eastwood’s early westerns and his “Street Westerns” (like Dirty Harry”), he spent much of his time sending bad guys to the hereafter. But he never seemed too worried about the hereafter himself. His characters, from Blondie to Coogan to Josey Wales, didn’t operate as if they were afraid of God, the afterlife, or anything else. In the latter part of his career, as many have noted, his characters have been paying for those wages of sin and death. And, as in Gran Torino, they can even die and face their maker.

It’s a little funny. (Funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha.) Eastwood’s filmography doesn’t include much fantasy, although he once described much of his early work, from Sergio Leone on, as being “male fantasies” (which may have been why Kael felt so compelled to puncture them). But there’s something otherworldly about The Man With No Name in the Leone trilogy, with his supernatural gun skills, and many of C. E.‘s westerns play like they might be dreams in the mind of the bedridden or dying soldier in The Beguiled. (Remember Robert Enrico’s film of Ambrose Bierce‘s The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge? Remember the dream and the nightmare that came with one snap of the neck of the hanged man?)

Eastwood has made one great Western ghost story, his relatively neglected 1973 world-is-hell town-taming horse opera High Plains Drifter. And he later returned to the idea, not quite as powerfully, in the Shane-ish Cannes Festival selection Pale Rider (1984). Both Drifter and Pale Rider present the Eastwood gunslinger as a kind of ghost (or avenging angel?), someone maybe not of this world, but maybe part of it too. (We don’t quite know.) And in both of them, the gunmen elevate vengeance to an art form.

Unforgiven, from 1992, with Eastwood’s Bill Munny as a different kind of avenging angel, the family man who pulls out the monster buried in his past, could be seen as part of the string too, though Munny isn’t a ghost. Yet.

So it’s not totally out of character for Eastwood to tackle this kind of material, or for Spielberg to insist that he was the right choice for Morgan‘s script, or for Eastwood to slide so easily into Morgan’s speculations about where we go when we’re dead. As you grow older, and more loved ones die, you understand more and more the appeal of the afterlife, and even if you don’t believe in it, you understand and you empathize with why so many others do. If you have it, it’s a solace. If you don’t, it can be a tragedy.

Hereafter isn’t totally a tragedy, or totally a horror movie, or even totally a drama about people with a link to the beyond. Or a dark comedy either; if it had more laughs, it’s detractors might be more tolerant. It’s a ghost story, about the beings, wisps of memory and yearning, and loved ones from our past that may be — or so the movie lets us believe for a moment — all around us, still alive, still somewhere. Don’t we wish.

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6 Responses to “MW on Movies: Hereafter”

  1. Ripshin says:

    This review is all over the map…and reads like a film school Critical Studies thesis. Spare me.

  2. Baskerin says:

    Wilmington writes the most thoughtful stuff you’ll find today, which is almost always critically open-minded than just plain praise or even misguided media bashing. And it’s often with a little sensibility, too. And I like that he’s given the near unedited ability to pen as much as he does here. It’s not that critics shouldn’t voice more than they should, it’s that they don’t get the chance to voice enough, and the web provides that opportunity.

    With that said, Critical Studies Thesis? I just graduated film school (in Chicago, no less), and I can tell you most film students, even me, couldn’t write this good, or this thoroughly, or this thoughtful, or this unabashed.

    It is all over the place. So, shouldn’t we be asking for more?

  3. sheila kind says:

    Michael Wilmington is one of the few critics writing today who doesn’t seem to have some sort of agenda or dislike determined by this or that director or actor. He also seems to know his stuff. He seems fair and honest in his opinions, whether you agree with him or not when you actually see a film yourself. For that I am grateful.

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  5. mary says:

    nice and beautifull posting


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon