Granted, Clint Eastwood in his senior years has demonstrated a remarkable readiness to broaden his boundaries as a director. A quick check of his filmography will show that as long ago as his middle-aged Breezy, 1973, he was ready to make a film outside the action arena, and for the first time, in three tries, exclusively behind the camera and not also in front of it. But it was not till the next decade that he was ready to make a film which had no prospects as a box-office smash, Honkytonk Man, and with that his liberation was truly underway. Later in that same decade came Bird, a free-form jazz biography of almost three hours, and just his second film exclusively behind the camera. And then the sexagenarian spurt of growth, the rigorous regimen of self-examination and redefinition, in the Nineties, White Hunter Black Heart, Unforgiven, A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County.
There have naturally been lapses and relapses in this later period — Space Cowboys, Blood Work — but he already had well distinguished himself as an artist chasing something other than top dollar. The past decade, the filmmaker’s eighth decade on earth, has brought another, a separate spurt, the new dimension of emotionalism in Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby — this from the most laconic and reticent of actors and the most classical and economical of directors — and then the empathic WWII diptych of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, and even the political (and philosophical) statement of Invictus, bumper-stickery though it was. Eastwood, besides just keeping compulsively busy, has been making movies like a man running out of time.
And now Hereafter, his first venture into the supernatural, deals explicitly with the subject of death and beyond. (No longer need it be stressed that he is exclusively behind the camera; it has become the usual thing.) The narrative is structured in three distinct, interwoven, and, we may presume, converging storylines. The first tells of the beyond-and-back experience of a French TV journalist (Cécile de France, cast not for familiarity to the general public but for talent and commitment and, mais oui, mature beauty) who survives a calamitous tsunami in Southeast Asia, a hair-raising sequence that goes against conventional cinematic wisdom by front-loading the computer-generated spectacle, shooting the whole wad at the outset. The second strand follows a real-deal San Francisco psychic (Matt Damon, even more restrained than in Invictus, if only because of the absence of the Afrikaner accent) who can communicate with the dead but has given up doing so — “It’s not a gift, it’s a curse” — in hopes of living a normal quiet life, enjoying his beloved Dickens, pursuing a promising romance in a night-school cooking class. The third relates a separated-at-death story of a shy young British twin (Frankie and/or George McLaren) longing to contact his gregarious dead brother.
It is a tribute to Eastwood’s sure-footedness that the special-effects climax, coming at the start instead of at the end, powerful and yet not overpowering, doesn’t throw the entire film out of whack. He swiftly and smoothly regains his equilibrium. The view, the vision, of the entryway to the Other Side — into the light, with welcomers waiting — had offered, in that opening pyrotechnical display, no more than the accepted, the conventional, view. And similarly the revealed methods of the psychic (“I’m picking up she was sick”) advance another conventional view, in effect validating such TV personalities in the field as John Edward and James Van Praagh. Contrast, which is to say differentiation of the real deal from the phony, is provided by the surviving twin’s tour of transparent charlatans, sideshow hucksters, unable to put him in touch with the departed or even to put a finger on the nature of his request. And the screenplay by Peter Morgan, known for such docudramas as The Queen and Frost/Nixon, touches upon, gives voice to, a variety of common beliefs on the subject, in much the manner of a topical made-for-television movie, well-researched, well-rounded, journalistically balanced, elementarily educational.
Despite all the conventionality, however, and despite the mantle of supernaturalism, it must be insisted that this cannot be classified a genre film. A genre film would be obliged to fill up its middle section with something more eventful, more energetic, more propulsive, than the desultory questing and questioning of our three protagonists. There’s a slackness to this section, Eastwood’s self-assurance edging into complacency, his habitual leisureliness fading to pokiness. (His self-composed background music, sounding like simple variations on his theme for Unforgiven, featuring a ruminative solo piano, harmonica, or guitar, only thickens the atmosphere of droopiness and drowsiness.) It is unquestionably a handsome film to look at, well lit and sharply etched, sinewy with the compositional tension of his signature low-angle diagonals. But even the eventual convergence of the three storylines at the London Book Fair fails to reinvigorate.
No great thunder, emotional or pyrotechnical, comes from the collision, merely another real-deal reading and, out of left field, a completely new and unhinted-at psychic ability — precognition — together with a feel-good plot turn that feels inadequate to, very nearly irrelevant to, the foregoing gravities. (But yes, I saw the lesson in it: get a life.) We can admire once again Eastwood’s willingness to attempt something different, something distant, without at the same time accepting that this particular something is quite his meat. The feeling, the fact, that he is out of his element — no less than Peter Morgan is likewise out of his element — would help to account for a palpable naivité. Their alienness to the territory seems to have permitted them to imagine that a professed belief in the afterlife is a sufficient wow in a tale of wonder. Any decent dabbler in the supernatural genre would take as a starting point what Eastwood and Morgan have tried to palm off as an ending point. ■