At a slim, graceful 80, Clint Eastwood has nothing left to prove. The past decade of his 55-year career has given him his greatest acclaim: Oscars as director and producer of Million Dollar Baby, plus five more nominations for Baby, Mystic River and Letters from Iwo Jima. It's as if his peers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences feel they owe Eastwood for all the years they ignored both his grizzled star quality, in the Sergio Leone westerns and the Dirty Harry crime films, and his laconic efficiency behind the camera. The Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992), Eastwood's 16th feature film as director, marked the first time the Academy had nominated him for anything.
The gold watches have been piling up, but the old cowboy refuses to be complacent. Eastwood has remained doggedly productive, averaging a movie a year since he turned 65. Yet he must suspect that his style of filmmaking is out of touch with the Hollywood zeitgeist. He said as much when presenting his latest work, Hereafter, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. "In this MTV generation that we live in," he told Andrea Baillie of the Canadian Press, "I think it's something that I still like to embrace. That we actually unfold the stories and get to know the people and get to know a little more detail about them, rather than play to the common denominator or the lack of attention span that sometimes people feel goes on now."
That's Clintspeak for "This movie is slow." Hereafter begins with one of the most thrilling, expertly executed flood scenes in film history: a tsunami strikes an Asian beach resort and courses through the town, inundating hundreds and nearly killing Marie (Cécile de France), a vacationing French TV journalist. But the vigor and dazzle of this sequence have almost nothing in common with the pensive, meandering narrative that follows.
Eastwood is the least assertive of major directors. He picks a script he likes and, rather than fiddling with it, shoots it pretty much as written which is why screenwriters love him. The Hereafter script is by Peter Morgan, who in his best-known work has dissected British royalty (The Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl and, on TV, Henry VIII), an American President (Frost/Nixon) and an African tyrant (The Last King of Scotland). No one here has a title; the three main figures are ordinary people with unusual abilities and startling visions.
Marie, after her tsunami trauma, has difficulty concentrating on her anchor duties; taking a leave from work, she writes a book on near death experiences. In San Francisco, George (Matt Damon), a psychic with an apparently genuine knack for connecting people to dead relatives, is crippled by the burden of his gift and decides to leave town. In London, 11-year-old twins Jacob and Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren) are eerily close companions. When Jacob is killed by an onrushing truck, Marcus is left with nothing but his dead brother's ashes and cap to comfort him, or perhaps speak to him.
Morgan and Eastwood have declared themselves undecided on the subject of the afterlife; they simply wanted to tell a story that explores the possibilities. The 1980 film Resurrection, in which Ellen Burstyn returns from near death with mysterious healing powers, managed that feat in fine fashion. Yet any serious drama on this subject risks dividing its audience into believers and scoffers. It's like the moment in the 1934 horror film The Black Cat when David Manners dismisses one of Bela Lugosi's statements as "supernatural baloney" and Lugosi replies, "Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not."
For the nonaligned, Hereafter may prove a bit of a slog especially in its middle portion, from which Eastwood could have cut a half hour and which is made watchable only by Damon's marvelously understated performance. This long section is just spadework for the climax, when the fates of Marie, George and Marcus converge. The payoff part coincidence, part destiny could leave you in tears.
Or perhaps not. The movie will rankle some viewers, conquer others. At least naysayers can be pleased that, from this healthy, workaholic director, there's always the promise of a good movie if not here, then hereafter. But if you stick around for the film's rapturous resolution, you'll see it as the final testament of many Eastwood characters, from his antihero in the Leone films to his sepulchral preacher in Pale Rider, from Million Dollar Baby's Frankie Dunn to Gran Torino's Walt Kowalski: men for whom facing down death is a natural part of life. For Eastwood, and those in sync with his mature, melancholy worldview, the hereafter is now.