hereafter

NYFF: Hereafter

[This is the ninth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

It seems inconceivable that Clint Eastwood would direct a film that uses the facile falsehood of psychic ability to drive its story, and that Peter Morgan (Peter Morgan! The man behind Frost/Nixon!) would write the screenplay. Eastwood, who told the tale of a bigoted Korean War vet adjusting to multicultural reality in Gran Torino, explored moral complexities with The Unforgiven, and expressed a willingness to invert 20th century historical expectations with his 2006 pair of World War II pictures, is hardly a fool. And he’s certainly not the type who would suddenly show up on late night TV with a psychic hotline – even when one accounts for such late-career misfires as Space Cowboys and Blood Work. But I’m pained to report that Eastwood’s latest film, Hereafter, is so utterly preposterous and condescending that I actually longed to revisit The Eiger Sanction. At least that disastrous film had some soul in the unlikely George Kennedy.

Psychic ability is not only unscientific. It is one of the most egregious and overused plot devices used to advance a story, particularly those which are outside genre. Indeed, even the Star Trek: The Next Generation series bible – a document for a franchise that proved too complacent to steer out of its utopian comfort zone – was careful to forbid its writers from including such omnipotent character types. Psychic ability is the reason why the fourth Indiana Jones movie was such a dud. It is often the reason why some cheesy movies are best enjoyed with friends over beer. And when Spielberg’s regrettable name emerged as executive producer during Hereafter‘s end credits, I immediately wondered if Morgan and Eastwood had been pressured, much as George Lucas and Spielberg had muscled out Frank Darabont during Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, to insert such nonsense into a later draft. After all, consider one side character at a resort who offers the line, “As a scientist and atheist, my mind was closed to this,” and who then states that the evidence is “irrefutable.” It’s almost as if this script was designed to recruit wild-eyed naifs.

What the fuck, Clint?

Whatever the film’s production history, I doubt that any of us will be privy to it anytime soon. There’s just too much money and too much power at stake to get an accurate glimpse through the dust motes. Maybe it’s possible that age has finally caught up with the old gunslinger and he’s now firing blanks. But what we have in the meantime is a colossal dud that is easily the worst film of Eastwood’s career. It’s as if Eastwood has traded in his class for the cash. Sure, Eastwood directs a pleasant scene with Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard (who appears as a fresh San Francisco transplant escaping a bad breakup in Pittsburgh – or possibly Pittsburg, over by Antioch; whatever the case, she’s just about the only character in this movie with personality) flirting with each other in a cooking class. One wears a blindfold. The other spoons in mouthfuls of sauce. It’s hardly 9 ½ Weeks (or even Hot Shots), but the two confess their real reasons for attending night school. Alas, just as this promising relationship develops, Matt Damon’s George confesses his secret talent – which is the ability to find psychic connections within people, a “talent” that filled up the coffers in halcyon days. (That George asks each recipient to only reply to these sessions with yes and no answers, and that he wins them over with such painfully leading inquiries – “You’ve lost someone recently” and so forth – leads one to believe that he’s a con. Unfortunately, the film lacks the courage to view George’s ability as even vaguely illegit, and his internal conflict is narrowed as a result. This is too bad for Damon, who offers a quietly commendable performance here. Indeed, his graying hair and sad mug reminded me of a young Gary Cooper.)

In Hereafter, Eastwood is sometimes competent at conveying the visual isolation of his characters by having them depart into dark corners of a room, where their faces blend into the dark murk. Such old school panache would be welcome if Eastwood wasn’t operating off of a script that’s stacked with unacceptable and unpersuasive anti-human twaddle.

Hereafter is a three-plot story that takes place in three countries, and that ties up through several highly contrived circumstances at the London Book Fair. It is a movie so fundamentally stupid that it believes that some kid can call up a publisher and find out which hotel a famous Frenchwoman is staying. It is naïve enough to presume that someone who toils at a sugar factory can pay rent and live alone in what appears to be a spacious North Beach apartment. (The press information sheet I have laughably refers to this character as “a blue-collar American.”) It believes that book publishers will actually have the time and the decency to set up a failed manuscript (written by a troublesome author who can’t even turn in the Mitterrand book she promised) with another house.

What else can one expect of a flick that offers psychic ability as its great instigator? But nobody goes to a Clint Eastwood film to get frequent flashes into a shadowy white realm occupied by dead souls. That’s M. Night Shyamalan territory. And it’s extremely disheartening to see a living legend adept with human nuance debase himself like this.

I didn’t so much mind the surprise tsunami at the film’s opening or the unanticipated explosion close to the film’s end. Such melodramatic interventions are not only the stuff of crass Hollywood, but recent headlines. But I couldn’t abide Morgan’s veneer-thin stereotypes. Aside from the one-dimensional George, you have Marie, the celebrity journalist (so famous that she’s appearing in BlackBerry ads; how’s that for journalistic integrity?) suddenly incapable of asking the tough questions after surviving death and who doesn’t understand why her tale of phony psychic victimhood won’t sell. You have Marcus, the angry kid who pickpockets 200 pounds and won’t talk to an adult about his grief. (Hey, Peter Morgan, ever heard of a little thing called counseling? Social workers don’t just knock on doors.) Morgan doesn’t even nudge us towards how these three vapid and disparate stories will merge together. I mean, even Paul Haggis had the decency to do that. And he doesn’t give us much reason to care.

Amidst such anemic archetypes, Morgan makes a foolish move and references Charles Dickens, informing his audience of a novelist who created quirky and unforgettable characters and telegraphing that, with this script, he’s nowhere near the same league. And if that isn’t enough self-sabotage for you, believe it or not, Morgan actually has George visit Dickens’s house!

And consider these lines:

“I don’t want to be here without you!” (during a moment of angst-ridden confession)

“I promise you I’m not going to let you down.” (during a moment of overwrought crisis)

“It’s what you are! You can’t run from that forever!” (during a moment of confidence building)

“I didn’t know you were going to be here.” (during a “surprise” run-in)

If Peter Morgan is not nominated for a Razzie for these unpardonable cliches, and for such an unfathomable surrender of his faculties, I will be stunned.

But Morgan isn’t the only one here who should be thrown to the wolves. It was Clint Eastwood, a man of advancing years, who signed on for this nonsense. It was Eastwood who knew damn well that he has perhaps a handful of films left in him and who believed that this shoddy material was the place to deposit his talents. This film is beyond embarrassing. It’s indefensible.

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4 Comments

  1. Your comparison of Eastwood’s legendary films with Hereafter and your perplexity at how to explain how the chasm between his great achievements of yore and this current film opened is charming in its naivete. The deification of Eastwood that began with Unforgiven is wholly unjustified by that and subsequent films of his. I actually kinda like Eastwood, and was probably one of the few people who enjoyed Firefox, but Unforgiven has no discernable moral dimension as far as I can see. Eastwood’s retired killer with his rusty skills ends up killing twenty men in a barroom without getting scathed, and retires to San Francisco as a prosperous dry goods merchant, so the end titles tell us. So the most violent man in the film is also the most fortunate. That’s hardly a very effective sermon against violence – it’s more like an ad for its benefits.

  2. Gee,Ed,tell us how you really feel about this movie-quit holding back,there!:)

    On a more serious note,why the hate on psychic ability? I do agree that’s an overused trope in many instances but “unscientific?” Most of the time when that factor comes into fictional play,particularly in a modern day setting,it’s never expected to be scientifically proven-nine times out of ten,the resident psychic character has their abilities sneered at by the cynic in the group until that magic moment when one of the predictions/visions/mind melds seem to be authentic which brings some doubt to the refusing to believe person who either accepts fully or resists to his/her own detriment. In other words,it’s a matter of faith for which logic has no ground to stand on.

    Yes,it can be hokey but so can science,least we forget where Jodie Foster’s space traveler ended up in Contact.

  3. Eastwood’s Hereafter is going to be a love it or hate it affair. It is remarkably different from anything he’s directed before and remarkably superior to previous, similar efforts from Inarritu, etc, to relate globally dispersed, yet ultimately intertwined character driven stories.

    I am someone who does not believe that there is such a thing as life after death. As skeptical as I am about it, I also know that I cannot possibly prove that there is no such thing. Hereafter didn’t change my mind about this one bit, but that didn’t stop me from deeply enjoying and appreciating the story that Eastwood and Morgan had to tell.

    I am also deeply annoyed by critics, who possessing not one iota of creative ability, always emphatically know better than screenwriters, directors and everyone else on the creative side of films.

    So much has been said about the leisurely and meandering pace of the film, which I find to be pointless observations. Many of these same reviewers completely failed to grasp that the astonishing, mostly first-person tsunami sequence was supposed to have happened in Thailand (not Maui, where the practicals were shot), based on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It’s equally clueless of these same commentators to characterize the terror elements of Hereafter as being “post-9/11,” when terrorist attacks against civilians have been going on, around the world, before and since 9/11. The terror incident portrayed in Hereafter is clearly based on the 2005 London Tube bombings, known over there as 7/7. No one, not even a ghost, predicted it. Finally, some of these same reviewers fault Matt Damon’s George Lonegan for not being a future seeing clairvoyant, when his one and only supernatural ability is limited to channeling the dead under very specific circumstances. For these impatient chroniclers, all of these details must have rushed by too slowly for them to have noticed at all.

    The fundamental story revolves around three kinds of loss.

    Cecile De France’s silver-spooned French TV journalist Marie LeLay dies (skeptics would say she has a near-death, out-of-body experience) and then miraculously comes back to life when active efforts to revive her have failed. (Her would-be CPR givers failed to clear her blocked airways of water prior to all of their huffing and puffing.) Her experience of crossing over and back gradually comes to overthrow nearly everything in her previously self-assured and self-determined Parisian life.

    Damon’s Lonegan rightfully considers his ability to channel the dead as being a curse. There is nothing congenital about it. Modern medicine has boiled his condition down to a form of childhood surgical brain-injury induced schizophrenia, to be controlled through the use of powerful medications that render him feeling lifeless. Refusing to medicate, his unmuted “talent” results in his ongoing alienation from the rest of everyday humanity. In the meanwhile, he lives an economically precarious blue collar life in San Francisco (which is very possible via rent control) and listens to Charles Dickens audio books as a substitute for sleep. All of this is portrayed with deft understatement by Damon.

    Real-life identical twins George and Frankie McLaren portray twelve-minutes separated twins Jason and Marcus, who are engaged in a spirited battle to prevent London’s Child Services from taking them away from their beloved junkie mother (Lyndsey Marshall). The younger Marcus, who has always deferred to his “older” brother, becomes a lost half-soul when Jason unexpectedly dies while returning from an hope filled errand that Marcus was initially asked to undertake for their mother. The same tragedy results in Marcus being placed in a foster home. So, he loses his mom, too. No matter how high functioning Marcus seems to be, he is deep in the grip of shock and grief.

    All of the other elements of Hereafter serve to underscore and develop each character’s profound sense of loss as well as their respective quests to fill their voids with meaningful answers.

    Bryce Dallas Howard delivers an inspired turn as Melanie, George’s night school cooking partner and potential romantic interest. Some reviewers have criticized Howard for overly hammy “bad acting,” when, in fact, she perfectly nails the part of a hypomanic speed-dater, rushing headlong into something she desires, but is too wounded by a traumatic past to be able to handle. It’s all seemingly unbelievable… until you’ve met people, in real-life, who are just like Melanie. As such, I think Howard’s turn was something courageous.

    The acting is so relaxed and natural you almost don’t realize that it’s a direct by product of Eastwood’s (mostly) one-take approach to film making. Every actor is delivering their A-game. No one is phoning anything in.

    Case in point, Damon’s performance as George Lonegan. Morgan and Eastwood show us a panoply of con artists posing as psychics in Hereafter. The audience is shown the blatant techniques of cold-reading, forceful suggestion (verbal hypnotism) and gaudy tech bamboozle that Marcus endures on his quest to somehow reconnect with Jason. In contrast, Damon’s Lonegan is extremely low key and very unassuming, which can be mistaken for the con artist’s matter-of-fact demeanor, George tells people to only answer yes/no to his questions, which causes every skeptic in the audience to anticipate that some form of fraud is about to be perpetrated, via wandering interrogation. Then George makes no effort to read the facial and body language of the person who is seeking contact with their lost loved one. George manages to ask direct, but not all knowing, questions about initiate matters that only the seeker and the deceased have prior knowledge of. We are meant to believe that George is not a fraud, after all, and we are never given any impossibly detailed explanation for how that can be. Damon sells all of this with a blunt force of sincerity and that is bound to supremely piss off every member of the audience who is unprepared to accept Hereafter as a work of fiction, not a docu-drama.

    Second case in point: As De France’s LeLay’s is increasingly treated as a nutcase by all of her former professional and intimate colleagues and as her former career eventually goes off the rails, LeLay never breaks down into self-pitying whimpering or vacillation. Instead, she steers her life in a new direction that is truer to the real imperatives that she now feels in her life. De France is not some “oppressed minority,” but she does have to contend with the bigotry of those who emphatically deny her point of view any shred of credibility. De France pulls this off with an outwardly breezy elan that is as tormented internally by personal betrayals as Damon’s Lonegan. This is also bound to be quickly dismissed by audience members who are not predisposed to a rational skepticism that is also tempered with any measure of open-mindedness.

    As for how things tie up at the London Book Fair and the fairy tale ending between Marie and George, I had no qualms. She’s died and come back, so George’s “curse” becomes his unique means of understanding what happened to Marie in a way that no one else can. To me, that is something lyrical, if not poetic. Again, this will upset some audience members, because it only serves to underscore that George is not a fraud.

    Marcus’ role in bringing George to Marie’s London hotel’s front desk brings in a much needed measure of genuine humor, too.

    Hereafter delivers no answers whatsoever about the afterlife, but it does conclude with three bright notes of new beginnings. In that, some might see the work of a benevolent divine hand. I saw three decent souls who chose to never give up. One does not contradict the other.

    I urge people to see Hereafter and to decide for themselves what Eastwood has delivered.

  4. alerter: Instead of cutting and pasting your boilerplate comment to this thread, how about actually engaging with the review? I didn’t mention anything about 9/11 or oppressed minorities, nor are you aware of what I do outside of this reviewing sideline. Your IP address is also associated with commenting spam. But I leave your comment up to aid other reviewers who might be receiving the same nonsense.

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