Filmmakers who attempt to depict the afterlife are walking into a minefield of booby traps.
Do you take an allegorical approach? Do you go for stark realism and hope you don't look gullible and ridiculous?
Director Clint Eastwood  and writer Peter Morgan  (The Queen , Frost/Nixon ) knew they couldn't prove or disprove life after death. So their film Hereafter  became a meditation on the human desire to understand what happens when we die.
It’s a wise approach. Whether you find the supernatural experiences of the film’s characters compelling or simply curious, as proof of life after death or merely a neurological spasm, Eastwood’s film can accommodate you without tripping up on the bathos of eternal bliss.
Hereafter begins with a special effects extravaganza worthy of a big Hollywood disaster picture.
Marie (Cecile de France ), a French journalist who hosts a "60 Minutes"-type news program , is vacationing in idyllic Indonesia  when a tsunami sweeps across the island. Marie drowns, is revived and finds herself walking across a sea of wreckage.
But nothing is the same. Post-death she has little interest in her job. She's obsessed with the visions she had while “dead.” She decides to write a book about the search for the hereafter.
In San Francisco, George (Matt Damon ) tries to ignore the pleas of his scheming brother (Jay Mohr ) that he return to his lucrative old gig – he was once a famous psychic. George protests that his ability to connect the living to the dead was no gift. It was a curse that prevented real intimacy with another person.
So he now drives a forklift and hopes to strike sparks with a slightly ditzy beauty (Bryce Dallas Howard ), his partner in an Italian cooking class.
In London, identical twin brothers Marcus and Jason (Frankie  and George McLaren , who, in a bit of creative casting, each play both roles) deal with their substance-addicted single mom and try to stay out of the child welfare system.
When one of the boys is killed in a traffic mishap, his morose sibling begins a desperate search to re-establish contact with his other half. To do so he'll have to negotiate an army of fakers and oddball "scientists."
These three story lines are deftly woven together in an ever-tightening fabric that finally finds the main characters meeting at a London book fair.
Despite a few humorous moments, Hereafter is an exercise in sustained mood – and not a happy one. Our protagonists live in their own versions of hell (maybe limbo is a better word), stranded between flesh-and-blood daily life and their personal desires, curiosities and fears of the Great Beyond.
Hereafter might be most accurately described as Clint Eastwood's French film.
This is not because a third of the dialogue is in that language but because in its languid pacing, subtle characterizations and anti-melodramatic approach it's the most European movie he has ever given us.
The acting is simply stupendous – perhaps the best ensemble work ever in an Eastwood film. Damon exhibits a vulnerability we've never seen before, the brothers McLaren are heartbreaking, and de France (a major star in her native country) exudes a striking blend of beauty and intelligence.
And in a relatively small role, Howard nearly steals the movie.
Eastwood's direction is so deft, economical and insightful that Hereafter provides a half dozen moments of heart-in-the-throat emotion. Yet it never feels there's too much or too little.
It's just right.
See Bob's general introduction to the Beyond This Vale of Tears film series .
Other films in the series “Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 3: Stairway to Heaven  (1946) Not rated
- December 10: Between Two Worlds  (1944) Not rated
- December 17: Hereafter  (2010) Rated PG-13
- December 24: Heaven Can Wait  (1978) Rated PG
- December 31: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life  (1983) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- December 5: A Guy Named Joe  (1943) Not rated
- December 12: What Dreams May Come  (1998) Rated PG-13
- December 19: The Lovely Bones  (2009) Rated PG-13
- December 26: Defending Your Life  (1991) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.