Thursday, October 21, 2010

Film review: Eastwood's 'Hereafter' exquisite, unforgettable

Bryce Dallas Howard and Matt Damon in Hereafter.


By John Thomason

A few years ago,‭ ‬when Clint Eastwood directed‭ ‬Flags of Our Fathers and‭ ‬Letters From Iwo Jima‭ ‬– his sobering companion films about World War II,‭ ‬told evenhandedly from both sides of the conflict‭ – ‬it seemed the best time to reflect on Eastwood’s directorial canon.

At the time,‭ ‬I analyzed Eastwood’s evolution from a two-dimensional icon of Western-movie chauvinism and hard-right vigilante justice to a behind-the-camera artist with profound sensitivities toward the socially outcast and whose complex,‭ ‬ever-shifting political leanings belie his personal conservatism more than reinforce it.

But at least in his style,‭ ‬Eastwood remains to this day a conservative filmmaker‭ – ‬a classicist more than a modernist and a craftsman more than an auteur,‭ ‬whose invisible directorial hand preserves an old-fashioned Hollywood tenderness‭ (‬or mawkishness,‭ ‬per his detractors‭)‬.‭ ‬In an era of‭ ‬3D ubiquity,‭ ‬CG showmanship and style-over-substance film-school maverickism,‭ ‬the Eastwood style of classical restraint is a vanishing art.

Yet it’s one that keeps me continually absorbed by even his lesser,‭ ‬flawed efforts of late‭ – ‬like‭ ‬Changeling and‭ ‬Gran Torino‭ – ‬and when the‭ ‬80-year-old director eventually dies or,‭ ‬less likely,‭ ‬retires,‭ ‬there won’t by anyone left to carry the torch.

And though Eastwood is not slowing down his productivity just yet‭ – ‬he’s currently in pre-production for a J.‭ ‬Edgar Hoover biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio‭ – ‬his touching latest release,‭ ‬Hereafter,‭ ‬is an acceptance of both the inevitable and the spiritual from an artist in his twilight years.‭ ‬The film finds the director peering through clouds of death for the silver linings of hope and rebirth,‭ ‬and it’s impossible not to read‭ ‬Hereafter as a meditation on mortality.‭ ‬It discovers a deeply rooted,‭ ‬if nondenominational,‭ ‬faith in an afterlife that may upset the apple cart of supposedly godless Hollywood liberalism‭ – ‬which is to say it’s the next confounding step in Eastwood’s chameleonic political-cinematic trajectory.

The presence of God’s machine in the events leading up to the characters‭’ ‬investigation of the afterlife may be less easily acceptable for believers than the film’s more spiritually rosy conclusions,‭ ‬and the random tragedies that incite this story implicitly confront a frequent problem for theists:‭ ‬Why does God kill innocent people‭? ‬The film opens on an idyllic beachside town,‭ ‬where a tsunami will obliterate hundreds of thousands of people within seconds.‭ ‬One of the few survivors will be French television reporter Marie LeLay‭ (‬Cecile de France‭)‬,‭ ‬whose near-death experience in the disaster will profoundly affect her life going forward.

Meanwhile,‭ ‬in England,‭ ‬a young boy loses his twin brother to another random accident brought on by a wrong-place,‭ ‬wrong-time confrontation with some local bullies.‭ ‬His attempts to communicate with his recently deceased kin lead him to a number of sham psychics.‭ ‬Meanwhile in the United States,‭ ‬Matt Damon plays George Lonegan,‭ ‬a honest-to-goodness psychic whose ability to communicate with ghosts developed from a childhood illness.‭ ‬A factory worker with penchants for Italian cuisine and Charles Dickens,‭ ‬Lonegan has given up his paranormal career after it played havoc on his personal life.

The three principal characters will circuitously coalesce in the final act,‭ ‬which I won’t‭ spoil.‭ ‬Suffice it to say that‭ ‬Hereafter is one of the most sensitive films ever made about the most sensitive subjects of our,‭ ‬or anyone’s time‭ – ‬life,‭ ‬death,‭ ‬faith,‭ ‬forgiveness,‭ ‬acceptance.‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬the violins may weep at the appropriate times,‭ ‬and in lesser hands,‭ ‬this material could have been a cornball weepie.‭

But Eastwood’s hands are not lesser,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Hereafter is one of the year’s most exquisitely calibrated and emotionally unforgettable experiences.

HEREAFTER. Studio:‭ ‬Warner Brothers‭; ‬Rating:‭ ‬PG-13‭; ‬Director:‭ ‬Clint Eastwood‭; ‬Cast:‭ ‬Matt Damon,‭ ‬Cecile de France,‭ ‬Frankie McLaren,‭ ‬George McLaren,‭ ‬Thierry Neuvic,‭ ‬Bryce Dallas Howard,‭ ‬Jay Mohr‭; ‬Opens:‭ ‬Friday‭; ‬Venue:‭ ‬Most commercial houses

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