Director Eastwood and his cast go in search of the Unknown
A t 80, Clint Eastwood has reached the age where he can make any movie he wants. Not coincidentally, he has also reached the age where he’s probably thinking a lot about death. And so we have “Hereafter,’’ a multi-character melodrama about the supernatural that’s affecting both in spite of and because of its flaws. Either “The Sixth Sense’’ for grown-ups or “Crash’’ for the credulous, Eastwood’s latest is serenely, even masterfully eccentric — the sort of movie that begins with a tsunami and ends with a kiss.
Of the three intertwined narratives, the most compelling features Matt Damon as George Lonegan, a reluctant psychic with the gift of communing with the dead. Able to hear the deceased relatives of anyone he touches, George skulks about San Francisco an exile amid the masses. He’s effectively a phantom himself, and, in a daringly internalized performance, Damon moves with the caution of a man who can bump into other people’s tragedies at any moment. The hero’s shifty brother (Jay Mohr) wants him to go back to making money off his “talent,’’ but George would rather work a faceless factory job and spend evenings listening to audio books of his beloved, safely dead Charles Dickens.
Some of us liked this story back in 1983, when it was called “The Dead Zone,’’ and Eastwood accords his hero the same mournful empathy David Cronenberg extended to Christopher Walken in that movie. The director and screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen’’) are after bigger game, though. “Hereafter’’ is a drama about the mystical connections between not only the living and the dead but the living and the living.
Two other story lines gradually converge with George’s. In the first, an impossibly glamorous French TV reporter named Marie (Cécile de France) survives the apocalyptic 2004 tidal wave in Indonesia — rather, she drowns and returns to life obsessed by her glimpse of a blurry, brightly lit afterworld. In the other, Marcus (Frankie McLaren), an impoverished London boy traumatized by the death of his twin brother (George McLaren), tries to contact him by any means Googleable. This leads Marcus to a parade of charlatans and crazies whom the movie treats with briskly welcome humor. They may be nuts, the filmmakers imply, but we’re not.
Morgan has been studying the playbook of Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel,’’ “21 Grams’’), and “Hereafter’’ zigzags between its plotlines with a solemnity that at times verges on self-parody. Yet even if Eastwood gives us a tsunami that’s muscular and fake-looking, even if his vision of the afterlife is banal — even if some of the filmmaking and performances are surprisingly slipshod — the director’s profound interest in human beings under stress sustains him. This is a movie about people dealing with the Unknown: A few seekers rushing toward it, one man wishing he could run away, the great mass of us simply pretending it doesn’t exist.
It’s one of the latter who becomes the most heartbreaking figure in “Hereafter’’: Bryce Dallas Howard as Melanie, a bright, pretty, anxious woman paired with George in an adult-ed cooking class (led by Steven Schirripa — Bobby Bacala on “The Sopranos’’). She’s desperate for a man and it shows, but she’s also drawn to the bruised tenderness of this man. The classroom scene where the two feed each other appetizers blindfolded, exchanging personal details with the smoked peppers, is a miniature masterpiece of emotional intimacy, and Howard, with her spooky eyes and long waterfall of dark red hair, gives it a shot of truly weird eroticism in the bargain.
You feel this woman’s fear and eagerness much more clearly than, say, the chic metaphysical serenity of de France’s Marie. And when it comes time for George to speak to the dead in Melanie’s past — she charmingly, pushily insists on it — neither she nor we are prepared for what she learns. Coming at around the midpoint of “Hereafter,’’ the scene is the film’s dramatic high-water mark, which presents a problem, to say the least.
Still, there’s more at stake here than in Eastwood’s last movie, the doughty historical diorama “Invictus,’’ and even more than in “Gran Torino,’’ his farewell to acting and his own hard-boiled Dirty Harry persona. Uneven as it is, “Hereafter’’ is a reminder of this director’s most unacknowledged gifts: a knack for guiding actresses (some actresses, anyway) to peaks of emotional intensity and an understanding of the ways in which movies can approach mystery better, more wordlessly, than almost any other medium. To paraphrase Melanie, tasting yet another amuse-bouche, “Hereafter’’ is “kind of nutty, kind of sweet.’’ Unexpectedly, it’s all Eastwood as well.