The Good, the Bad and the Dead

Clint Eastwood is in danger of taking himself too seriously. After a terrifying opening sequence, his latest venture quickly gets tangled in its own entrails. Without trite foreshadowing or “Inception”-style ominous music, the audience plunges into nail-biting chaos as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 rips across the frame, crashing down on Marie Lelay (Cecile de France) and arresting the viewer in full-throttle anxiety. As Eastwood’s subsequent musings take form, “Hereafter”’s realism soon becomes crippled by a cramped, inconsistent production.

The film tails the separate lives of three characters — Lelay, a French journalist who narrowly survives the aforementioned natural disaster; George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a lonely psychic who’s haunted by his ability to communicate with the dead; and Marcus (Frankie McLaren), a boy devastated by the recent death of his twin brother. Predictably, their lives intersect, as each learns an important lesson about acceptance, love and whatever other bullshit Oprah is pushing nowadays. Lonegan also schools us on fraudulent psychic “readings” as hazy images of deceased family members cracking jokes come to the forefront, urging us to “move on” before it’s too late. Occasionally, this jives well with the subdued tone and beautiful, perpetually overcast cinematography of the film. More often, it doesn’t.

“Hereafter” stands on uneven ground. Brilliant performances by Damon, de France and Bryce Dallas Howard (as a girl Damon meets at a cooking class) are propped awkwardly against those unconvincingly delivered by the McLaren brothers — two newcomers cast by Eastwood to avoid the schmaltz of Hollywood, at the expense of the film’s acting credibility. The complex and nuanced relationship between the twin boys and their heroin-addicted single mother (Lyndsey Marshal) is lost in frames like the one that depicts an absurdly hackneyed and unprovoked band of teenagers as they chase one campy twin (whichever of the two you perceive to be less talented, if you can discern such a thing) into oncoming traffic.

Despite the acting inconsistency, “Hereafter”’s unconventional premise — a combination of supernatural mystery and downplayed existential drama — feels fresh. But after two hours, the film’s meandering ultimately becomes more strenuous than captivating. It becomes increasingly difficult to know what Eastwood is trying to convey, or if he’s trying to convey anything at all.

At its best, “Hereafter” is a meditative slice-of-life that doesn’t claim to know the answers, instead leading us to question our own interpretations of mortality. At its worst, the film remains a decisive reminder that the 80-year-old actor/director can still craft a lukewarm murder-mystery — and outstrip M. Night Shyamalan in the same stroke.

“Hereafter” could be salvaged if it weren’t for the baffling, two-dimensional finale that forces the film to switch gears from the expected slow-moving drama to an out-of-nowhere romance — all within the last ten minutes.

It’s still tolerable, though. “Hereafter” exudes tension, drama and enough interesting ideas to merit some semblance of an audience. But after this one dies at the box office, we won’t hear from its ghost again.  (C+)

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