Film Review: Hereafter

Fate draws together three people who have brushed with death. Polished drama from Clint Eastwood remains on the surface of its interesting premise.

Clint Eastwood continues to broaden his range of interests as a storyteller even as he refines his skills as a filmmaker. Hereafter, the latest example of his focused, succinct style, tackles a potentially controversial subject with little ado but considerable entertainment. A first-rate showcase for actor Matt Damon, the film is less successful at making sense of the topics it raises. Audience reaction will be muted, but fans will still appreciate Eastwood's talent.

Hereafter offers up three storylines, ranging from Indonesia to Europe and the United States. In the first, Marie (Cécile de France), a French television personality, has difficulty adjusting to work after a near-death experience. In London, young twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie McLaren and George McLaren) cover for their drug-addicted mother to thwart social workers intent on sending them to foster homes. An accident still threatens to destroy the family. And in San Francisco, psychic George Lonegan retreats to a factory job to escape the demands of bereaved clients desperate to contact the dead.

Peter Morgan's script fills in the characters with quick, decisive strokes. George's grasping brother Billy (Jay Mohr) registers in a few brief scenes as he tries to turn a profit on his brother's gift. Even more impressive is Bryce Dallas Howard, riveting as a woman trying to hide how needy she is. And Damon delivers an outstanding performance, exploring all of his character's conflicts and contradictions in an unforced, confident manner.

Eastwood's direction is equally assured and supple. One bravura sequence early in the film combines stunts and CGI to take viewers directly into the cascading calamities of a natural disaster. An extended seduction during a cooking class plays out at a perfect pitch, capturing the hesitations and impulsive gestures of lonely but cautious people.

Not all of the film unfolds so smoothly. Although the director is a famously fast worker, parts of Hereafter seem uncharacteristically rushed. The establishing shots of Big Ben and the Golden Gate Bridge, exposition delivered by phone machine, even a jet taking off are too clearly shortcuts. And Eastwood's version of the afterlife is a distinct disappointment: Don't viewers deserve a little more than bright lights and distorted silhouettes?

More troubling are the moral choices in the script. It's one thing to place children in peril if it leads to a scene like George's harrowing encounter with a grieving twin late in the film. But when Morgan uses a tsunami or a terrorist bombing as a plot device, is he examining grief or merely exploiting it? Flaws like this keep Hereafter out of the top tier of Eastwood's films, but then few directors have worked at such a consistently high level.