Clint Eastwood famously likes to shoot his screenplays as they are written, making no revisions, and that may be where the problems began with his new film Hereafter. Peter Morgan's script feels like a first draft, with plot points and characters merely sketched in, and the narrative held together by strained contrivances, as if they were put down as markers with Morgan intending to come back and add some finesse and depth at a later time. It seems he never got the chance, and Hereafter now appears onscreen as a bewilderingly half-cocked load of nonsense, and the work of a director who seems patently unsuited to this material. This film, with its analysis of death and the afterlife, and its reliance on curious twists of fate, required the light, otherworldly touch of a Kieslowski (admittedly, directors like that are in short supply), and Eastwood's typically pragmatic, workmanlike approach feels horribly at odds with the material. Hereafter bleeds vitality and potency from its first scene onwards. What on earth can you say about a movie that begins with a tsunami and climaxes at a book fair?
That tsunami does provide the film with a startling opening, though. It's a spectacular recreation of the 2004 disaster, with one of the film's three main protagonists getting caught up in the chaos. French journalist Marie (Cécile De France) is on holiday with her boyfriend when the wave hits, rushing terrifyingly through the streets and destroying anything that lies in its path. Marie is engulfed by water and she comes close enough to drowning to experience a brief glimpse of the other side, a glimpse that haunts her as she recovers from her traumatic experience back in France. She gives up on the book she has been commissioned to write – an explosive biography of François Mitterrand – and instead begins to pursue her newfound interest in the other side, following a path that will eventually bring her into contact with the film's two other lead characters.
This is one of those movies in which the narrative focus hops between separate narrative strands before they are eventually pulled together. In London, we meet twins Marcus and Jason (George MacLaren and Frankie MacLaren), the 12 year-old sons of a junkie mother, both of whom are appalling actors whose flat delivery suggests they're reading their lines for the very first time, although the pain of listening to them is at least halved when Jason is killed by a car. Meanwhile, in America, Matt Damon plays George, a reclusive individual who possesses the power of contacting the dead, but who hides his gift, believing it to be more of a curse. Damon's performance is the picture's most successful, as he brings a sensitivity and emotional weight to the role, but his character is as one-note as the film, which Eastwood shoots in shadowy tones and paces lugubriously.
Some of Hereafter's weird tangents are just baffling. There's the Swiss scientist (Marthe Keller) and her big box of evidence for the afterlife, the rather cheap inclusion of the July 7th London bombings, and an amusing cameo from Derek Jacobi (never knowingly underacting, even as himself). Morgan ties everything together in a clumsily laborious fashion, and the picture never appears to have anything worth saying about the afterlife, or any sense of purpose behind it. Why did Eastwood make this film? It is another lumbering misfire from a director who, just a few years ago, seemed incapable of putting a foot wrong. Since his hugely impressive World War II double-bill in 2006, the only Eastwood picture I've really enjoyed has been Gran Torino, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he brought his inimitable presence to the leading role. I can't help feeling that Hereafter could have used a similar onscreen boost, perhaps with Clint playing an old man coming to the end of his life and facing the truth of what lies on the other side. It's a ridiculous notion, of course – after all, it would have required a rewrite.