Three parallel stories connected by life after death make for an ambitious but disappointing drama.
Clint Eastwood’s directing career over the last few years has encompassed diverse subject matter, including female boxing (Million Dollar Baby), World War II (Falgs of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima), retired car workers (Gran Torino), missing children (Changeling) and the 1995 Rugby World Cup (Invictus).
But even by his eclectic standards Hereafter is something of a curveball, exploring how three characters across the globe are affected by the afterlife in different ways.
There is a French TV presenter (Cécile de France) obsessed with death after narrowly surviving the 2004 Asian Tsunami; a former psychic (Matt Damon) in San Francisco who feels cursed by his ability to communicate with the dead; and a London schoolboy (Frankie McLaren) struggling to cope after losing his twin brother.
Scripted by Peter Morgan, best known for political dramas The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008), the material boldly dives in to big themes but as it progresses feels curiously disjointed and more like an early draft of something more profound.
The intercutting of the three stories at first feels like a bold move but soon becomes wearying and as the film enters into the final act, the curious lack of tension or revelation for a subject as big as death feels oddly underwhelming.
This gave his better films of recent years (Mystic River, Letters From Iwo Jima) a slow burning power and richness, but here it works against the material, muting the themes and emotions of the lead characters.
There are parts of the film that show promise: the San Francisco section handles the potentially laughable subject of psychics with an elegant restraint and Damon conveys the loneliness of a decent man haunted by a strange gift.
In a similar way, Cécile de France is convincing as a career woman profoundly touched by death and a scene where she visits a clinic, hints at a more interesting film about humans can briefly experience the afterlife.
Instead the afterlife is presented through the cliché of quick cuts, sound effects and glowing white CGI which is both disappointing and underwhelming.
This is compounded by the London section, which not only bungles key details of the 2005 London bombings (getting the tube stations wrong) but suffers from a dramatic inertia, compounded by a bizarre final section in the city which is lacking in tension.
Morgan’s initial script may have stood out in Hollywood because he wrote it on spec – rather than be commissioned by a studio – and the unusual elements might have piqued Eastwood’s interest because they weren’t chasing an industry trend.
To be fair to the veteran director, his handling of the locations and interior scenes is impressive, with Tom Stern’s lean and clean cinematography featuring a little more movement than their previous collaborations.
Eastwood’s score is also a plus, with the guitar and piano providing a nice counterpoint to the struggle of the different characters struggling to comprehend their situations.
Some scenes hint at what might have been: such as a quietly disturbing psychic reading on a first date; the startling opening sequence and a brief discussion about the commonality of near-death experiences.
The film deals with the subject of death without the loud bombast favoured by mainstream cinema and moves at a reasonable, if fractured, pace but the story never really digs deep or rises to be anything special.
A set of underdeveloped ideas and a patchwork, dislocated narrative provide a weak foundation, which means that by the curiously uninvolving climax you might have forgotten it is about arguably the biggest subject of all.
Ultimately Hereafter is a film which chooses not to stare death in the face, but give it a distracted, passing glance.