When I saw Clint Eastwood’s Changeling back in 2008, it instantly became one of my favourite films. Beautiful and brutal in equal measure, the film enthralled and devastated me so completely that it crossed seamlessly into the realm of utterly unmissable cinema. It also ensured that the future films of Clint Eastwood would forever hold some interest for me, at the very least prompting me to make a cinema trip to see them.
Or so I thought.
In 2010, I remember seeing a trailer for Hereafter and being left unimpressed. Once the weighty ‘Clint Eastwood’ title had lingered onscreen, it was all downhill from there. My main concern was that I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of film I was being sold. Was it part disaster movie? Part dramatic cheesefest of epic proportions? I just couldn’t tell.
Interestingly, my attitude towards the trailer exemplifies the feelings that I had towards the entire feature length film. Imagine that Clint Eastwood calls you up and invites you to a mass funeral. You don’t particularly want to go, but you do… because…well… it’s Clint Eastwood. However, on arrival you find that half the cast of Eastenders are rehearsing at the back of the church. This is strange and you feel uncomfortable, but you stay because… well… it’s Clint Eastwood. Then Mr Eastwood shuffles up close and puts the moves on you. At this point, all bets are off.
In short, Hereafter is an extremely odd way to spend 129 minutes.
As I’ve just attempted to illustrate, the plot strands of Hereafter simply do not mesh. At the beginning of the film I distinctly remember thinking that there were too many strands. I was losing focus, forgetting certain elements and really hoping that the film would tighten up quickly. Imagine my surprise when I realised that there were actually only three strands to this confusing puzzle. This is the cinematic equivalent of being asked to examine and memorise three objects, then forgetting which country you’re in.
The English segment of the film is uninspired and badly acted. Frankie and George McLaren play both Marcus and Jason, twin brothers living with their drug addicted mother. These characters are the emotional core of this section of the film, but these performances lack depth and sincerity, which makes identification problematic. This already hampered believability is then greatly reduced, as the story of an underprivileged child who is forced to grow up too quickly feels tired and is ridden with cliché.
Meanwhile, a successful French journalist (Marie Lelay, played by Cécile De France) has a near-death experience whist on holiday, as a tsunami destroys the town which she is visiting. This causes her to re-evaluate her life, inadvertently ruin her relationship and destroy her career. Once again, viewers are faced with a protagonist who is extremely difficult to identify with, but this time it is bad characterisation which hinders identification. The audience are shown practically nothing of Marie before the tsunami hits and are given virtually no information regarding her backstory or character. This particular narrative arc relies on Marie’s supposed transformation in order to work, but the audience are provided with little evidence to support this change.
Over in America, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a psychic who desperately craves normality. He works a menial job and has turned his back on his power in favour of finding love and some semblance of a normal life. Although Damon does his very best to engender sympathy, it is extremely difficult to feel anything other than frustration with his character. At a base level, in these troubling economic times Lonegan has a talent which could earn him fame and fortune. He also has an ability which makes him unique, can provide some comfort to those struck by grief and is able to prove the existence of life after death. Having made the conscious decision to move away from his gift and all that it represents, Lonegan is almost completely impossible to identify with. As each strand of the narrative offers a protagonist who lacks verisimilitude, it is clear that a general lack of empathy is one of the key flaws of the film.
Another fundamental problem is the way in which Hereafter decontextualises certain elements of its narrative. For instance, the film features a tsunami and the bombing of a London tube station. These aspects of the story are closely rooted in reality, as the tragic events of the last few years are still cemented in the public consciousness. Yet Hereafter takes these events and drains them of all meaning, exploiting them to conjure a shorthand for tragedy. There is something ultimately distasteful about these aspects of the film, but it is likely that these sections would not feel quite so awful if they weren’t shoehorned into such strange material.
The tone of the film is extremely inconsistent. Like heavy metal music at a regal dinner party, there are many sequences which feature music that is inappropriate and which alters the intended feel of the scenes. For instance, the sequence which sees Lonegan finally helping Marcus to communicate with his brother is scored in a way which disturbs any cohesion by tacking an eerily depressing score onto what should have been a relatively uplifting sequence.
As well as featuring scenes which feel fragmented by elements with differing tones, Hereafter includes whole sequences which feel distinctly at odds with the rest of the film. For instance, a cooking class featuring Lonegan and a love interest feels like a cheesy ‘meet-cute’ which has no place in a serious drama dealing with death and the after-life. However, the most glaring example of this occurs at the end of the film, as Eastwood chooses to conclude the piece with a passionate kiss between Lonegan and Lelay. The scene feels as if it has been plucked from the end of a romantic comedy and plonked into a tragic drama, whilst the characters have had far too little contact for this to mark the traditionally happy ending which the film clearly attempts. This all makes for an extremely awkward and inconsistent end to what has been an extremely awkward and inconsistent film.
Needless to say, I was hugely disappointed by Hereafter. However, I still find myself eagerly anticipating future Clint Eastwood projects. Though there have been hits and misses in Eastwood’s career, if the latest J. Edgar (due for UK release in January 2012) trailer is anything to go by, we have one hell of a hit to look forward to.