That Clint Eastwood has become a great filmmaker is a given, and yet the nature of his greatness is as surprising as it is little understood.
You can talk about the pristine technique; his new film, Hereafter, provides lots of examples. But what's much more fascinating and enriching is Eastwood's Olympian vision, the film's sympathetic and all- encompassing understanding of the pain and grandeur of life on earth.
This vision is consistent in Eastwood's late work, no matter who is doing the screenwriting, and it boggles the mind to realize this is coming from a guy who, until he was about 60, was best known as an action hero. Make no mistake, Eastwood's directorial output, from Mystic River on, constitutes the 21st century's first cinematic marvel, and Hereafter is among the best things he has ever done.
Like Alejandro Inarritu's Babel and Wayne Kramer's Crossing Over, Hereafter is an attempt to convey the bigness of life though a story involving disparate characters in various parts of the world. All three movies are responses to the interconnectedness of the modern world, but Hereafter is by far the most successful, partly because it has the best screenplay — by Peter Morgan (The Queen) — and partly because it has a director who understands the difference between important and self-important.
Eastwood takes us into the story from the opening shots. From a hotel window, we see a beach resort, filmed with the kind of color saturation we might see in an old postcard. The effect is reassuring but misleading. A vacationing French journalist (Cécile De France) goes into the village to buy presents to bring home. Suddenly, there's a rumbling, and within seconds, buildings are washed away, and cars, trucks and people are caught in a giant wave.
There have been tsunamis in movies before, but what makes this one so effective (aside from its technical perfection) is that Eastwood stays with De France. We experience the catastrophe from one person's terrified and subjective vantage point. It's as close as you'll ever be to a tidal wave without getting wet.
Hereafter features three central characters touched by death. The newswoman apparently drowns — but is revived. A construction worker (Matt Damon) in San Francisco is cursed with an ability to talk to the dead. And a little boy in London develops an all-consuming desire to talk to a recently deceased loved one. These stories play out separately, then gradually move toward one another.
Every shot communicates something precise: a plot detail or a specific thought or emotion. As an actor, Eastwood is used to breaking up a script into a succession of beats, or specific actions, and he does the same as a director. Such meticulousness serves his actors well and allows him to take his time with scenes and let them expand and feel lived in. He never wastes his audience's time; he is always feeding it new information.
Eastwood's practical unwillingness to neglect any actor gives Hereafter a humane essence: Everybody is important, not just Damon as the tortured psychic or De France as a breezy extrovert deepened by trauma. The little boy's mother (Lyndsey Marshal) is more than a desperate alcoholic, and Bryce Dallas Howard gets to create a rich character as Melanie, the psychic's partner in a San Francisco cooking class — a young woman masking pain under a superficial façade that has become her personality.
The ironic result of this meticulous care is that we don't see Eastwood's hand; this gallery of humanity is telling the story for him. It's the most self-effacing way to do great work, and the approach couldn't be more suited to this material. The film's notion that people share a common destiny, that they're participating in some overarching order, that they're being watched over by a benevolent all-seeing understanding, doesn't need to be spelled out. It has its analogue and expression in Eastwood's technique.
He just tells the story, and we get it.