Pretty much since "Mystic River," every time Clint Eastwood directs a new film the awards season spotlight inevitably shines on the project, whether its really a contender or not.  Eastwood has been on a tear in the 21st Century with "River," "Letters from Iwo Jima" and the best picture winning "Million Dollar Baby."  He's also had his share of misfires though with the middling "Flags for our Fathers" and "Changeling."  Plus, he also starred in and helmed the massive hit "Gran Torino" which would easily have been in the best picture race if there were 10 nominees that year.  Eastwood's latest endeavor is the Peter Morgan scripted "Hereafter" and after catching the picture this week at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival, it's unclear where it fits in the mix.

Essentially three separate stories, "Hereafter" ventures to delve into the eternally vexing topic of what, if anything, happens to us when we die.  You'd assume it is a subject matter on the mind of a filmmaker nearing the age of 80, but like most of his films, Eastwood appears to be keeping a straightforward outlook on Morgan's original material.  "The Queen" screenwriter uses three convergent shorelines to make his case. 

The first centers on a French business reporter (Cécile De France) who has a near death experience during a massive tsunami while on vacation in Southeast Asia.  When she returns home, she becomes increasingly obsessed with the strange experience she's had when she appeared dead during a harrowing moment during the disaster.  She eventually starts to research the near death phenomenon and uncovers something of a conspiracy by the media to keep the story quiet.  It seems noted researchers claim to have evidence proving there is something out there after we pass, but no one wants to report it.

Matt Damon, reuniting with Eastwood after last year's underrated "Invictus," brings gravitas to the second storyline which finds the "Bourne" star as a man with real psychic abilities to communicate with the dead.  After initially using his gift for financial gain, he's tried to hide from his former identity by becoming a warehouse worker and leading a much simpler life.  When he meets Bryce Dallas Howard, however, his romantic inclinations find him using his abilities to unintentionally scuttle a possible love affair.



The most heartbreaking and original of the shorelines follows two twin boys in London (George and Frankie McLaren) who are doing everything they can to avoid being taken away from their drug addict of a mother.  When tragedy strikes one of the twins, the other becomes obsessed with trying to reconnect with him in the afterlife. 

It's a given that how the threads coincide will be somewhat contrived, but to his credit, Eastwood's unpretentious direction smoothes over what could have been a "you've got to be kidding" moment. The problem is the picture never really delivers on its teasing premise to explore the hereafter and only the twin storyline is truly compelling.  That arc will no doubt move many older audiences and the strong International presence of de France could give the picture extended playability in Europe (nothing's better than being able to cut TV spots in the territory's native tongue), but its award season prospects are murky at best.

The best picture race to land just one of the 10 slots is turning out to be humdinger and "Hereafter" will no doubt get mixed to positive reviews from the cult of Clint, but it just don't feel like a real player in that category.  Actor?  Damon is fine, but it's not that difficult a role (or as interesting as it should be).  Many are buzzing about De France, but that nod feels like a reach.  Howard actually has one of the more moving moments of the film and arguably gives one of her best performances of her career in a small role.  She could easily slide into a somewhat weak best supporting actress race this year. 

What's frustrating about "Hereafter" is the movie, at times, unquestionably works.  The tsunami that is depicted in the trailer produced gasps during the film's premiere and whenever the twin storyline appeared on screen you could tell the audience was much more engaged.  The problem, as noted by HitFix's Drew McWeeny, is by the time you get to the end you feel as though it hasn't added up to much.  Most of the fault lies at Morgan's feet for this.  What exactly is he trying to say with this picture?  Your guess is as good as mine.  On a side note, Eastwood doesn't help himself with yet another weak scoring effort.  The picture could have been much more arresting if he'd brought on someone else to compose it.

In the pantheon of Eastwood's recent work, "Hereafter" isn't as frustratingly awkward as "Changling" or "Flags," but not near his beloved "Baby" or "River" either.  But for many moviegoers, that will be enough.  For the academy?  Place your bets because with Clint, you never know.

"Hereafter" opens nationwide on Oct. 22.
 

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