I have reached a stage in my life where New Age-y stories that deal with the meaning of life, happiness, the afterlife, and other fluffy philosophical topics make me immediately reach for a vomit bag. Usually, the older you get the more likely you are to embrace these topics, but I seem to be the exception to the rule. A few manage to surprise me every now and then (i.e. Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES, which no one else seemed to care for), but generally, I prefer to focus my attention on academics who have devoted substantial time and energy (which they prove by being bald and poor) to these subjects rather than listen to what Kevin Costner or Kevin Spacey have to say about them. When I first learned what Clint Eastwood’s new film, HEREAFTER, was about, I was skeptical. I figured Eastwood is now 80 years old and when you get that old you probably start thinking about your mortality and what’s going to happen to you when you die. HEREAFTER did not sound like the kind of movie Eastwood should be making despite the fact that Steven Spielberg, after reading the screenplay, was the one who recommended that Eastwood direct this film. However, you can’t really say no to a Clint Eastwood film. The man has given us 7 films over the past 6 years and, for the most part, they are all very good. So it’s only fair that I allow him the chance to prove me wrong. After seeing it, I can say that HEREAFTER is far from being a total piece of shit. I credit Eastwood’s superb craftsmanship for creating a film that avoids being average and even manages to make a slightly indelible impression upon me. Ultimately, however, HEREAFTER fails to join the pantheon of Eastwood classics such as MYSTIC RIVER, UNFORGIVEN, and MILLION DOLLAR BABY.

HEREAFTER is three separate stories that come together at the very end (Warner Bros marketing is making the film appear like Matt Damon appears throughout the entire film, which is understandable because he is the only star in the movie). The first story is about a well known French television news anchor/journalist, Marie LeLay (Cecile De France), who is vacationing with her boyfriend in some tropical destination. A tsunami hits the area and LeLay is swept up in the water’s currents. Miraculously, she is revived after technically being dead, during which time she saw herself going toward a white light. The experience causes LeLay to reexamine her purpose and goals in life and she decides to take some time off from her news anchor position to write a book about her near-death experience.

In the second story, we are introduced to a pair of young identical twin boys, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren – NOTE: Eastwood used real twins whereas David Fincher used computer effects to create his twins in THE SOCIAL NETWORK) who live in London with their junkie/alcoholic single mom. One day, Marcus runs out to pick up prescription medication for his mother. On his way back, he runs into a gang of young hoodlums who take his cell phone away. Snagging his phone back, Marcus runs home with the gang in hot pursuit. However, in trying to evade the hoodlums, Marcus runs out into the street where he’s hit and killed by a truck. Marcus’ death turns Jason’s world upside down as he is taken by Family Social Services and placed in a foster home while his mother enters rehab. To deal with his brother’s loss, Jason begins to seek out psychics and other information in order to somehow get in touch with his dead brother.

The final story is about George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a factory worker living in San Francisco who has the ability to get in touch with people’s loved ones in the afterlife. Lonegan used to make a great living as a psychic with his brother (Jay Mohr) as his business manager. However, Lonegan decided that making a living out of death was no way to live and he vowed to never use his ability again. As we eventually find out, that becomes easier said than done.

Clint Eastwood’s directorial strength lies in his ability to elicit great performances from his actors. It is no coincidence that so many of his past movies have earned Academy Award nominations and wins for best acting (i.e. UNFORGIVEN, MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CHANGELING, and INVICTUS). HEREAFTER doesn’t contain any single standout performances, but as a whole, the actors produce strong work and carry the weight of the movie. Damon gives a quiet and dignified performance that sort of gave me a glimpse of what sort of actor he may someday become. The actor was aged for his role and his performance reflects the age and experience of his character. Although Damon has played leading man roles in recent years, his role here is of a different sort that reminded me of how Cary Grant evolved from comedic to more serious leading roles as he aged. Even though Damon’s role is smaller in this film than it was in INVICTUS, I was more impressed by his efforts here than I was in the latter film.

The last decade seems to have seen a precipitous drop in the quality of roles for actresses. There are a woefully small number of female performances that I can recall off the top of my head that are truly memorable. HEREAFTER gives me two to remember. The first belongs to Cecile De France as the French TV news anchor, Marie LeLay. You will immediately be struck by how beautiful this actress is, but that has very little to do with the quality of her performance. The strength of De France’s performance lies in the range of emotion she is able to convey just by her facial expressions. I think Eastwood wanted to bring a European sensibility into his story and he succeeds by casting De France, who brings a rawness to how she conveys human emotion. The second memorable performance comes from a rising talent (and Ron Howard’s daughter) who has impressed me from the little I have so far seen from her. I’m talking about Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays Melanie, a young woman Damon’s character meets at a cooking class. Howard is unfortunately not given enough screen time and that is a shame because she really goes to town with her performance. There is one scene in particular that seemed to have the entire theater enraptured by the sensuousness that the actress evokes. That scene takes place in a cooking class Melanie is taking with Damon’s character. They have been blindfolded and are instructed to administer a taste test to their cooking partner to see whether they can figure out what kind of food they have prepared. When it is her turn to be tested by George, Melanie begins to express her romantic interests to him. As she chews through her food test, the camera closes in on her and Melanie flirts with her cooking partner.  The chemistry between these characters is instantly established in no small thanks to Howard’s immediate connectivity with the audience.

Eastwood’s past films have mostly been story-driven pieces that contain strong characters. With HEREAFTER, Eastwood delivers a more character-driven movie that may disappoint an audience looking for a more typical Eastwood movie. There is a story, actually there are three, but they serve as more of a foundation toward establishing and exploring the characters we are introduced to. Because of this, HEREAFTER may move a little too slowly for some. For me, I didn’t mind the slow pacing of the movie mostly because I found myself connecting with the characters and they drove the story along well.

I appreciate Eastwood’s willingness to experiment with different genres and styles and HEREAFTER is certainly different from anything else he has done. No film he has directed is like any other and you can clearly see that from his oeuvre of films (Westerns, crime drama, boxing, World War II, etc.). Although HEREAFTER doesn’t rank among Eastwood’s best films, it remains a noteworthy effort that should be commended simply for the director’s sense of experimentation. His choice to tell three stories in one film is a unique approach that I sense was inspired by European cinema, which this film certainly borrows from heavily in both narrative and character development.

However, for all the things that made me appreciate HEREAFTER, the film also has some serious drawbacks. Just because your film is character-driven doesn’t mean you neglect the narrative and I felt that’s exactly what Eastwood does here. Part of the problem is that three separate stories are being told so its not like you can develop a very intricate plot for each one unless you’re planning to tell a 4 hour story. At the same time, in none of the stories, especially the one about the French news anchor, does there seem to be a whole lot going on. Damon’s character doesn’t want to be a psychic, he meets a girl, he then flirts with the idea of going back to being a psychic, and then nothing. The twin brother loses his brother, he goes off to live with some foster parents, and he goes out searching for a way to connect with his brother. The news anchor undergoes a life changing experience and tries to deal with it by writing a book about it. In none of these stories are there any real stakes or conflicts. Except for the opening tsunami scene, which is done very well I might add, you don’t get much tension or conflict. As for its dramatic elements, one critic described the film as feeling too much like a Lifetime movie and I think that’s a pretty accurate description of the forced sentimentality Eastwood tries to get from his audience.

HEREAFTER is not a bad film, but its certainly not Eastwood at the top of his game. Much like INVICTUS, I felt Eastwood may have tried to bite more than he could chew in trying to tell a story about life after death. Its not that he’s unable to understand the subject matter, but I suspect he may not hold a high enough interest to inspire him to make a great film about the subject material.