So far, I've gone relatively light on the public screenings here at the Toronto International Film Festival, but when you get an invitation to the world premiere of Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter," you go. Especially if it's a film written by Peter Morgan and starring Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard, and if you hear it has something to do with the supernatural.
And certainly, that does describe the film to an extent. All those things are true. It's an incredibly well-pedigreed movie. Morgan's a sturdy writer… whatever story he sets out to tell, he's a nuts-and-bolts kind of a guy, great with dialogue and small moments and human observation. There's a reason he's busy all the time right now. "Hereafter" is an original screenplay by him, not adapted from the stage, and I think maybe the intermediary step helps Morgan. He's able to workshop material, hear it in front of audiences, adjust and adapt, and then polish it up when it gets turned into a movie. With "Hereafter," there are some things to like, but as a whole, it's a failed triptych, a formal experiment with an unsatisfactory final result.
It's been vogue now since "Pulp Fiction" to do the three stories that intertwine of pay off each other in surprising ways, and it's hard to get it right. There are films like "Babel" that pull it off and that bring the three stories together in a way that illuminates each one, and there are films that flub it, that never gel into something that feels like a single piece of art. At their clumsiest, they feel like Frankenstein's monsters, parts, but no sum.
"Hereafter" opens with a bang, literally, in a sequence that is so good that it feels like it belongs to another movie. Marie (Cecile De France) is a successful television personality, on an island vacation with her director, and she heads out into the local town early one morning to buy some souvenirs. Out of nowhere, there's a tsunami, and while that just takes six words to write, the way it is staged by Eastwood is epic and sudden and intense, packed with effects shots and stunts and eventually ballooning into a set piece on an unexpected scale. It's a harrowing experience, and at the end of it, Marie dies. But just for a moment, and what she sees during those moments underwater, and what she sees while she's laying on this deck, not breathing, eyes locked on some private focus… that's what Morgan wants to write about.
We meet George (Matt Damon), a factory worker with a past he's running from. He wants to change his life, live simply, meet a woman, settle down, and try to be happy. He has a power… a gift, as his brother (Jay Mohr) calls it, a curse as he calls it… to touch people's hands and form connections to dead people who were close to them. In an early scene, Mohr brings a business client (Richard Kind) to see Damon, and it's nicely written and nicely played. There's a wee bit of special effects to suggest what Damon sees, but mainly, this is one-act play type stuff, which is a compliment. Morgan's good at putting characters in a room and letting dialogue shape the world around them. Kind is deeply unsettled by Damon's power, but grateful for the message.
We also follow Marie as she grapples with what happened to her and what she saw. She has questions, and she wants to talk to people, but we're told no one believes her. Cecile De France is an engaging presence, and it's wild to see her in an Eastwood movie considering I mainly know her from Alexandre Aja's "Haute Tension," but however good her work is, her storyline is ridiculous. It's a world Morgan doesn't know, and it never feels authentic at all. I understand the notion to put this woman in harm's way, give her a spiritual experience, and then watch what happens when everyone around her tries to accept what she's saying. But as drama, it never works in this film. Her storyline is, in my opinion, a total bust.
Equally stiff is he one invoking young Marcus (Frankie McLaren), who lives with his heroin addict mother (Marthe Keller) and his twin brother until a car accident kills his brother, and Marcus is left adrift, looking for answers. Again… as a concept, not bad, but in execution, McLaren's a bust. He's got the right look, with sad old man eyes, but he just never inhabits the role or convincingly evokes the grief of having lost a twin.
You know from the very start that something will bring these three together, but Morgan doesn't know what to do with that idea. You'd think some sort of epiphany or recognition or answers would be awaiting the characters, but because Morgan never offers any ideas about what waits beyond death aside from some wispy process shots that look like Cerebro from the "X-Men" movies, there's no real ending to the movie. It's all build-up and then empty at the moment it needs to tie everything together.
It's not some awful misfire. The Damon storyline yields the best results, especially when he meets a young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) in an Italian cooking class he's taking, and the tension between them is great. Howard's never been more appealing on film, and Damon really does nail the role of a guy who just wants normalcy, and who hates being special. He hates the responsibility. He hates hurting people who are already in pain. And he hates not being able to keep people close to him because they get freaked out. The way their arc plays out is the most enjoyable stuff in the film.
Overall, I didn't care much for "Hereafter," but I don't think it deserves venomous responses from people. There is actual thought at work here, and you can tell that they're trying to make something special. Sometimes, when you swing for the fences, you miss. But I respect the swing nonetheless.
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