The fi­nal fron­tier

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Here­after, su­per­nat­u­ral thriller, rated PG-13, Re­gal Sta­dium 14 and Re­gal DeVargas, 3 chiles

IClint East­wood makes the movies he wants to make, with­out much of a by-your-leave or apol­ogy. He may trail the im­age of Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name in our col­lec­tive un­con­scious, but he’s just as com­fort­able in Bird­land or Madi­son County. And now he’s made a movie about the far side of the Great Di­vide. As poul­try mag­nate Frank Per­due might have said, it takes a tough man to make a ten­der movie.

How you take to the lat­est East­wood ven­ture might have a lot to do with where you stand on the thorny is­sue of death. The char­ac­ters in the movie hash it out from var­i­ous per­spec­tives, from the ter­mi­nal (“It’s the end, a big blank”) to the tran­si­tional. Or­ga­nized re­li­gious tem­plates don’t get much shrift here, but the per­sis­tence of con­scious­ness and a de­sire of the dead to com­mu­ni­cate with the liv­ing, mostly in the form of apol­ogy, take front and cen­ter.

East­wood, work­ing from a screen­play by Bri­tish writer Peter Mor­gan ( The Queen, Frost/Nixon), draws us along three sep­a­rate story lines that pay no at­ten­tion to one an­other for the first hour and a half and then even­tu­ally braid to­gether in the last act. The first of these sto­ries starts with a huge adren­a­line rush. It’s 2004, and French TV jour­nal­ist Marie Le­Lay (Cé­cile de France) is va­ca­tion­ing in In­done­sia with her lover, Didier (Thierry Neu­vic), when the Boxing Day tsunami hits. It’s a hell of an open­ing, a breath­less CGI se­quence that car­ries us along with Marie in the ter­ri­fy­ing on­rush of ocean that top­ples trees and build­ings, flings boats and cars like paper cups, and very nearly set­tles the poor girl’s hash for good be­fore the open­ing cred­its are cold. She is tossed and tum­bled, smashed with flot­sam, and dragged un­der. She does, in fact, go over to the far side, where a bright light beck­ons and fig­ures am­ble to­ward a dis­tant hori­zon, but they’re not quite ready for her, and she slips away back into the land of the liv­ing.

In San Fran­cisco, a re­formed psy­chic named Ge­orge (Matt Da­mon) is try­ing to go straight as a con­struc­tion worker, but peo­ple keep drag­ging him back down the spir­i­tual path. “It’s not a gift,” Ge­orge wretch­edly tells his en­tre­pre­neur­ial brother Billy (Jay Mohr) in a line you may have heard be­fore, “It’s a curse!” There are things you’d rather not see, se­crets you’d rather not hear from the de­parted, and it can be hell on your so­cial life. But peo­ple keep want­ing to know what their de­parted loved ones are up to, and brother Billy can’t un­der­stand why Ge­orge would waste such a lu­cra­tive cash cow. When Ge­orge is downsized out of the con­struc­tion busi­ness, it be­gins to look like the only op­tion.

And over on screen­writer Mor­gan’s side of the pond, a pair of twins, Mar­cus and Ja­son (Ge­orge and Frankie McLaren), are try­ing to jug­gle the prob­lems of an al­co­holic mother and a pair of well-mean­ing London so­cial work­ers when tragedy strikes and one of them is killed.

East­wood tells his story in his usual straight­for­ward, la­conic style. Some may find his de­pic­tion of the white light of the Great Be­yond hack­neyed, but since that seems to be the preva­lent de­scrip­tion from those who have dab­bled a toe on that side and lived to tell about it, it’s hard to see what would have been gained by show­ing some­thing more ex­trav­a­gantly Julie Tay­mor-es­que. Some­one I know who has strayed close to that border re­ported be­ing pro­foundly shaken by the film, and I have no rea­son to say it ain’t so.

The leads in the three sto­ries are two-thirds ex­cel­lent. Da­mon does his usual solid, un­selfish work, adapt­ing the set of his body and the gait of his walk to the ser­vice of this par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter. Ge­orge is a fan of Charles Dick­ens, sooth­ing him­self in his leisure hours with an au­dio book of Derek Ja­cobi read­ing David Cop­per­field. He also takes an Ital­ian cook­ing class, a won­der­ful in­ter­lude dur­ing which he meets a tall dark stranger, the pretty but an­noy­ingly hy­per­cute Bryce Dal­las Howard.

The French end of things are beau­ti­fully han­dled by de France. Marie’s brush with death has left her too rat­tled to fo­cus on her TV job, so she takes some time off to col­lect her­self and write a book. Here the story goes off the rails a bit, as she prom­ises her pub­lisher a book about François Mit­ter­rand but with­out warn­ing delivers one on the far side of death. She com­pletes the book for a New Age out­fit in Santa Fe and has it ready for the London Book Fair in what seems like no time at all. But the char­ac­ters all need to con­vene in London for the movie’s res­o­lu­tion.

The low end of the per­for­mance me­ter falls to the McLaren twins (used in­ter­change­ably as the sur­viv­ing brother), who don’t man­age well when they have to talk. But the sur­vivor is so trau­ma­tized that he spends most of his time sul­lenly mute.

With East­wood vet­eran Tom Stern as cin­e­matog­ra­pher, the movie has a rich, dark look that serves it well. East­wood him­self once again con­trib­utes his own ef­fec­tive score. There are some awk­ward scenes and some facile twists when the sto­ries knit to­gether, but over­all it’s good sto­ry­telling and an in­trigu­ing bit of spec­u­la­tion on the “big ques­tion” from the old mas­ter.

In Un­for­given, when the cal­low youth jus­ti­fies a bit of slaugh­ter by stam­mer­ing, “They had it com­ing,” East­wood summed it up suc­cinctly: “We all got it com­ing, kid.” Here we get a peek at what may be com­ing next.

Not the usual kitchen sink drama: Bryce Dal­las Howard and Matt Da­mon

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