The final frontier
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