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Hereafter has a good spirit.

The Sixth Sense

Melanie and George spice up the kitchen
Melanie and George spice up the kitchen

A cinematic triptych, Hereafter tells the stories of an American with the gift to speak with the dead, a French woman who dies and comes back to life, and an English boy whose twin brother is killed in an accident.

These three characters each approach the topic of the hereafter from a unique personal experience that drives them. Their stories are followed over the course of several months, finally dovetailing at a book fair in London.

For George Lonegan (Matt Damon, Invictus), his ability to speak with the departed, a side effect picked up after surgery as a boy, is less of a gift and more of a curse. His brother thoroughly disagrees, seeing it as an opportunity to make money without consideration for George’s feelings.

But George’s story isn’t the sensationalist bump-in-the-night faux séance nonsense the world might want it to be. Instead, his story is a quiet tragedy. Following a previous round of fame that included a Web site and a biography, George withdrew from the limelight, content to pull down $2,000/month while working in a sugar warehouse in San Francisco. His ability to talk to the dead was sapping the life out of him.

And as romantic as the notion of talking with the dearly departed might sound, the ability also crushed his love life.

Ghost

As director Clint Eastwood (Changeling) is wont to do, Hereafter is told at a casual pace that invests time in getting to know the characters. And that’s precisely why Hereafter works as well as it does. The characters are credible. None of them want to be in the position they’re in, but it’s the hand they’ve been dealt and now they’re trying to cope the best they can.

George’s story could’ve easily gone in diametrically opposed directions. It could’ve been blasé. It could’ve been exaggerated. Instead, Damon’s calm, genteel performance is a real winner. Sporting a smidge of gray in the temples, Damon has matured into a consistently solid performer and he’s particularly likeable as this reluctant psychic.

As for the French woman, Marie Lelay (Cecile De France, High Tension), she’s pushed into taking a hiatus from hosting a French investigative reporting TV show and tries to focus her attentions on writing a biography of Francois Mitterrand in order to take her mind off her near-death experience. But even those efforts are derailed as she feels compelled to explore that which she experienced, the hereafter, much to her publisher’s chagrin.

George and Marie represent the two extremes of the hereafter; one can communicate with the afterlife and the other has been there and returned. The English boy, Marcus, represents the more common storyline: He’s been left behind and he wants his brother back.

Ghost Whisperer

Hereafter’s first act feels like Eastwood’s playing some jazz riffs, like he’s painting vignettes and seeing where the characters go. Each character’s story needs to be established, providing plenty of background material to make them relatable.

The three stories weave together nicely because each character follows their bliss, to use Joseph Campbell’s vernacular. The crossing of their paths is more serendipity than hokey and credit goes to Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan (The Damned United) for agilely walking that thin line.

Instead of being an overwrought, weepy tale of death and loves lost, Hereafter refreshingly maintains an even keel. It doesn’t get preachy and it only mildly tugs at the heart strings while raising questions about how lives are lived in the now and how – or if – life goes on in the hereafter. As is noted about George’s sentiments, “A life that’s all about death is no life at all.”

Ghost Town

Death and the possibilities of life after it are pretty heavy subjects, but Hereafter still manages an agreeable amount of humor.

Poor 12-year-old Marcus, in a foster home while his mom goes through rehab, is relegated to surfing the Web for answers. A series of YouTube videos provides no satisfaction. And he also visits a string of two-bit carneys, each with a different gimmick for contacting the dead. His research makes George’s subdued approach all the more appealing.

But much more significantly, there’s a fantastic segment of George’s story that involves cooking school and a new girl in town named Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard, Spider-Man 3). Their pairing is sweet and sexy.

One of the best scenes this year involves George and Melanie tempting and tasting during a blindfolded taste test. She has “no freaking idea” what she’s eating. Taking turns with their eyes covered, they tease each other and reveal morsels about themselves. An operatic crescendo accompanies Melanie’s finally identifying the Italian treat titillating her taste buds.

Those scenes between George and Melanie alone make Hereafter worth watching. They’re the kind of enchanting, unexpected movie magic that generates a light-headed buzz.

  • Veronica Portnoy: I wonder why Mr. Morgan and Mr. Eastwood don't admit that they based the character "George Lonegan" on medium George Anderson. If you read the biography of Anderson, you can see the movie co-opted his life and ability, even to the fact that "George Lonegan" becomes a psychic after an illness. George Anderson suffered from a brain injury as a child and believes this is when his ability to talk to the dead came about. October 24, 2010 reply
  • (anonymous): Solid article. I do, however, find the subheadings a bit distracting and unnecessary. I understand that you are trying to break the review into mini-themes, but I would suggest scrapping them altogether for a review of this length. January 15, 2011 reply