Dirty Harry Callahan would have taken one long, hard, squinty look at Hereafter, curled his mouth into a grimace of utter incomprehension, and muttered, "You're not making my day." The afterlife, after all, wasn't a place Harry seemed to think a lot about, except as a destination for those on the business end of his .44 Magnum.
But Harry was then. Hereafter — Clint Eastwood's 31st feature as a director, a story about clairvoyance and spirituality — is most definitely now. The movie is a departure for Eastwood. But it makes a certain amount of sense, given how closely the course of Eastwood's career as a director has mirrored the man's maturation as a progressively reflective and morally generous artist.
His early movies were synonymous with violence and law-and-order-style moral indignation — the qualities that made High Plains Drifter, Sudden Impact, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider such guilty pleasures — but the movies that will more likely comprise his lasting legacy decidedly lean the other way: Unforgiven (1992), which won him his first Academy Award as best director (and for best picture) was, for all the gunplay, a renunciation of violence, a revisionist Western in every sense. Million Dollar Baby (2004) flipped the trademark Eastwood machismo on its head, with a tale of a female boxer (Hilary Swank) and an old-style trainer who gets an education in gender equality. It, too, won multiple Oscars, for the director, the picture, Swank and supporting actor Morgan Freeman.
So the idea that Eastwood would contemplate mortality midway through his 80th year, and doing it onscreen, isn't a surprise.
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Matt Damon starred with Freeman in 2009's Invictus, and he has returned to Eastwood in Hereafter. He plays George Lonegan, "cursed" with the ability to communicate with those who've departed for the Great Beyond. His more craven brother (Jay Mohr) encourages George to make money with his gift, but George wants to put it all behind him. But like it or not, he can't escape his destiny, or the needs of grieving people with whom he comes in contact.
"I just imagined George as someone with a really rich inner life but who was just achingly lonely," Damon said recently. "But that's all the stuff Peter did in the script. And having worked with Clint, I know how closely he adheres to the script, so I just sort of treated it like a play and showed up ready to go."
"Peter" is Peter Morgan, whose screenplays for The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon and The Damned United have made him one of the more in-demand screenwriters in the business. It was Morgan's story, Damon said, that got Eastwood intrigued.
"The script was really so well put together and so well conceived, it really did a lot of my work for me," Damon said. "And yeah, it's certainly different from anything Clint's done, but I think at his level he just responds to scripts he really likes. And he's just so versatile, he can really do anything. He just likes to tell stories, and this is a really good story."
It's a triptych of sorts (thus decidedly un-Eastwood). While Lonegan is coping with his demons (and angels), French celebrity-TV journalist Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) is trying to recover from survival. Her South Pacific vacation, interrupted by a tsunami, has left her with deep, disturbing questions about the nature of mortality. (The big-wave sequence that Marie endures seems to mark Eastwood's debut as a special-effects director). And in London, young Marcus (George and Frankie McLaren) has lost his beloved twin brother and relentlessly pursues answers, running a gauntlet of spiritual hucksters, scam artists and crackpots, en route to Lonegan.
It was the parallel narratives, so unusual for Eastwood, that allowed Damon to be in the film. "I shot after everybody else," he said. "I couldn't do the movie at first because I was working on The Adjustment Bureau (which comes out in March), but Clint sort of put the movie on hiatus over the Christmas break. He'd wanted to shoot in the fall, but I wasn't available till January, so he shot the other two stories and then I did mine."
Hereafter, as intended, will have audiences questioning their own beliefs — about immortality, heaven, religion, pseudo-religion, the dying of the flesh and the dying of the light. It's not as if there are any answers, of course.
"I'm certainly someone who hopes the light just doesn't go off," Damon said, then laughed. "We'll see, I guess."