It's nothing if not daring to begin a movie with its most remarkable sequence. In fact, the opening of Hereafter -a vivid depiction of the tsunami that struck Thailand in 2004 - is one of the most amazing sequences of the year, a gripping combination of special effects and speeding camera work that hits the screen with tidal force.
Fair to say that little following in the wake of this re-created natural disaster has similar power, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the rest of Hereafter - a movie that marks a great leap for director Clint Eastwood --- boasts some of the year's gentlest filmmaking. Still surprising at 80, Eastwood hits some of the loveliest notes in what's become an astonishingly varied directorial career.
Hereafter may posit the existence of some sort of after-death experience, but it's no tricky supernatural thriller. Rather, it's a movie about the ways in which two characters cope with death in their lives and the way in which another tries to come to terms with his troublesome psychic abilities.
Eastwood, wisely I think, understands that the important hereafter is not the one that follows death, but the one these characters will pursue once they've found their share of peace and resolution.
It's not uncommon for movies that attempt to tell three distinct stories - which Hereafter does - to stumble as they switch inelegantly between various plot threads. Eastwood manages the transitions smoothly, uniting the three strands only at the movie's end. He also keeps the movie's rhythms subdued, a directorial choice that stops Hereafter from feeling exploitative or sensationalized.
To the extent that Eastwood shows the afterlife, it looks dull enough to make you wonder whether you'd really like to wind up there. But supernatural kicks aren't what Eastwood's after. I have no idea what Eastwood believes about death and the hereafter, but he's respectful of the journey on which his characters have embarked, which is precisely what the job requires.
As for those three stories...
One involves a San Francisco psychic (Matt Damon) who views his abilities as more curse than gift. Damon's George Lonegan wants to live a normal life, but his brother (Jay Mohr) hopes that he'll use his powers to turn a profit. Grief-torn customers will pay for the comfort of receiving a message from a lost love one. Wanting no part of the commercial psychic's life, George works in a factory and lives in relative isolation.
Scenes between Bryce Dallas Howard and Damon, who meet in an Italian cooking class, are built around a quietly evolving but palpable sexual chemistry. But George knows that his exceptional abilities can sabotage relationships and return him to isolation.
Then there's the eminently successful French TV journalist Marie LeLay (Cecile De France), enmeshed in an affair and caught in the tsunami that opens the picture.
Finally, we meet twins Marcus and Jason (played by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren). They're conspiring allies in an on-going battle to keep London social workers from taking them from their drug-addicted mother.
The McLaren twins give the movie's best and most moving performances. I wasn't entirely sure how to take Damon's deeply wary portrayal of George, and there's unfortunate redundancy in George's constant insistence that he's done with the psychic life.
Screenwriter Patrick Morgan's script avoids sentimentality, but hardly qualifies as a treasure trove of psychological subtext. It's content to tell a story that's less interested in convincing us that there's an afterlife than in exploring something that turns out be more credible: what might happen to characters who hold such beliefs. It's hardly surprising that Eastwood - as down-to-earth a director as there is -- ultimately casts his lot more with the "here" than with the "after." Hereafter could be the most determinedly grounded "supernatural" movie yet.