(Hereafter, Clint Eastwood, US, 2010, 129 mins)
One day you’re going to die. I know, it’s quite a thought isn’t it? Not for me of course, in fact, to quote the great philosopher Jonathan Frakes, “I plan to live forever”, but for the rest of you death is the last unexplored taboo and thanks to Clint Eastwood’s sedate drama, it remains so.
Hereafter belongs to the aged Eastwood tradition of bone-dry fare with an old fashioned emphasis on character and performance. The ideology is welcome, it’s simply the methodology that makes you nostalgic for the days when the man would cut loose and entertain rather than contemplate at leisure.
It’s the tale of a haunted psychic, inertly played by Matt Damon, whose plight is as clichéd as that description. Damon may feel cursed but he’s been extraordinarily lucky in those he’s met on the other side, all of whom spoke English, the first language of the afterlife, allowing him to successfully communicate their messages to relatives and leapfrog the charlatans. Both Cecile De France’s Tsunami survivor and Frank and George McClaren’s bereaved twin Marcus need his help, each wrestling with their own morbid experiences, while Bryce Dallas Howard shows up briefly to represent man’s experience of every woman they’ve ever known, at first appearing to be a dream come true then forcing Damon to do something he didn’t want to do and finally punishing him for doing it.
Eastwood’s film plies its wares with a deathly serious tone; the sort of ponderous, single finger to mouth over nose with thumb hooked under chin contemplation that suggests it’s exploring those discomforting existential questions that art faces head on but simple entertainment ducks. Splendid, but this is philosophy for people who think Kant is an insult and Foucault is a device used to cover foodstuffs in melted chocolate.
In fact, due to Peter Morgan’s literal minded screenplay, the film is philosophically empty. Life after death is presented as a fact and not only that but the architects of the hereafter had no imagination, constructing a waiting room for souls that looks like every generic representation you’ve ever seen – white light, a featureless plain with no horizon and the dead standing there, playing with themselves, waiting for, well, God alone knows.
Matt Damon doesn’t know where the dead go when they’ve finished apologising to their loved ones, rather than imparting information about the afterlife that could immeasurably add to the sum total of human knowledge. That reassuring question mark allows the filmmakers to be theologically neutral thereby not offending any of the faiths represented on screen and simultaneously allowing the production to side-step elephant traps like the representation of heaven. I suppose a ship floating on an ocean of breasts might have distracted us from the film’s existential themes but I for one would have taken the risk.
Hereafter excels, however, in exploring the philosophical questions that underpin serious filmmaking. It asks all the big ones, questions which we’ll explore now. Questions like, can a film with pretentions to seriousness still effectively tell its story when every other frame is saturated in product placement? Of course we understand that those Warner brothers, the cheeky little bastards, have to pay for their pictures somehow, but are we here to become involved in the lives of these characters or be sold a flight on Virgin Atlantic? Has the film failed to captivate its audience if they’re unmoved by the story but certain that when it comes to search engines, Google is their weapon of choice, if it’s a cola it has to be Coke and when it comes to publishing the only two names important enough to appear in a major motion picture are Simon and Schuster?
Does it matter if the filmmakers choose a period setting for their film, then dispense with it part way into the story, once it’s become a hindrance to the interests of the corporate sponsors? Hereafter begins on Boxing Day 2004 with an effective, if not pixel perfect re-enactment of the Tsunami disaster. As the movie progresses we’re privy to the knowledge that roughly a year of story time has passed. That timeframe encompasses the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London in July 2005, gratuitously recycled as a minor plot point and with added whimsy, in an affront to those who weren’t fortunate enough to be saved from the terrorists by dead relatives. So the film is set in the year 2004-05, right? You might think so, says Eastwood but hold on, maybe not. In fact, ‘when is this movie set?’ is the question that will haunt your dreams, not, as Clint may have hoped, ‘is there life after death?’
De France’s Gallic answer to Kirsty Walk uses a contemporary Apple MacBook with what, to my eye, looked to be a modern suite of software but she’s not the only one who can literally tap into the future. Lone twin Marcus searches for answers on the afterlife using YouTube videos with modern download speeds. That’s one thing but the fact he can use YouTube at all is something else when its official launch wasn’t until November 2005. Ah yes, you’ll say, but he could have been one of the first users, except that his storyline, shackled as it is to that of De France, tells us that only a few months have passed at this point in the story. To misquote Robert De Niro, “anachronisms, anachronisms.”
If you’re confused by all of that you’ll be positively floored when Matt Damon walks into London’s Mayfair hotel during the third act and stands behinds a computer monitor that reveals the date to be “10/02/10.” Perhaps the monitor was malfunctioning, perhaps Clint was, perhaps we’ll never know.
So, can you really respect a group of filmmakers that subordinate their story’s period setting to the commercial needs of companies? Google, owners of YouTube, no doubt insisted their video service appear in the picture. Apple, still shaken by Justin Timberlake using an historically accurate iBook in The Social Network, must have reasoned that there was little point giving Eastwood $5m if they couldn’t sell their contemporary MacBook range. Featuring period friendly machines would be like trying to sell their audience the iAbacus. What would be the point?
I don’t know the answers to these questions but if you do I implore you to make a film that explores them and perhaps provides some clues. Make it punchy though, for fuck’s sake.