Clint Eastwood's Hereafter opens with the most exciting, expertly assembled flood scene in movie history. A tsunami gathers force in its path toward an Asian beach resort, swatting a large ship as if it were a toy boat. Then it crashes on shore and pours through the town. Special-effects experts know that water is among the hardest computer-generated elements to render accurately, but this tsunami's power is utterly plausible. At Hereafter's world-premiere screening on Sunday at the Toronto Film Festival, the 1,500 spectators in the Elgin Theatre gasped as one one frightened, enthralled child at the ultimate Saturday matinee.
What they saw was a scene whose editing builds the tsunami horror with urgency and clarity. It inundates viewers in the larger disaster while assuring that they keep track of the two characters they already know: Marie (Cecile de France), a popular anchorwoman on French TV, who's shopping in the resort village when the wave breaks and is swept away in the churning tide, and her boss and lover (Thierry Neuvic), back at their hotel. Marie is pulled underwater but surfaces, and seems to have survived, when Whack! she is knocked out. As she loses consciousness, she has a near blinding glimpse of shadowy figures in a tableau of radiance. She is thrown ashore, where two men desperately try to revive her, without success. A minute later, she spits out water. If she were dead then, she's back with the living now.
Eastwood movies don't usually boast moments like this: a CGI action scene so brilliantly managed that Michael Bay could only dream of having it on his résumé. Was the tsunami sequence mostly the work of second-unit directors and effects wizards? Or did Steven Spielberg, one of Hereafter's executive producers, lend his legendary gift for painting grand canvases of disaster that also show an acute attention to human detail? Even if the scene were all Eastwood's doing, it launches the movie with a wondrous blend of art, technique and entertainment. And it has almost nothing in common with the pensive, sprawling supernatural narrative that follows.
At a slim, graceful 80, and at the end of the most acclaimed decade of his long and lauded career (with Academy Awards as director and producer of Million Dollar Baby, plus five more Oscar nominations for Baby, Mystic River and Letters from Iwo Jima), Eastwood has nothing to prove. Yet in Toronto, he sounded a little defensive about his films' laconic style. As he told Andrea Baillie of the Canadian Press: "In this MTV generation that we live in, I think it's something that I still like to embrace: that we actually unfold the stories and get to know the people and get to know a little more detail about them, rather than play to the common denominator or the lack of attention span that sometimes people feel goes on now." Hereafter is a daunting test for the video-game crowd and, for more patient viewers, a film of mixed rewards and challenges.
The script is by Peter Morgan, best known for dissecting British royalty (The Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl and, on TV, Henry VII), American Presidents (Frost/Nixon) and African tyrants (The Last King of Scotland). No one in Hereafter has a title; the three main figures are ordinary people with unusual abilities and startling visions. Marie, after her tsunami trauma, has difficulty concentrating on her anchor duties; taking a leave from the show, she feels compelled to write a book about near death experiences. In San Francisco, George (Matt Damon), a psychic with an apparently genuine knack for connecting people with dead relatives, is cropped by his gift and leaves town, fleeing his entrepreneur brother (Jay Mohr) and a potential girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard). In London, 11-year-old twins Jason and Marcus (George and Frankie McLaren) give moral support to their wayward mother (Niamh Cusack). When Jason is flattened and killed by an onrushing truck, Marcus is left alone, with nothing but his dead twin's ashes and cap to comfort him, and perhaps speak to him.
Eastwood the director is, as he acknowledges, a man with a slow hand. He lets the story play out at a measured pace. Rather than fiddling with scripts, he shoots them pretty much as written (which is why screenwriters love him). If there's inherent drama in the work, it will emerge; if not, scenes can lie there like a row of carp at San Francisco's Sun Fast Seafood Co.
Hereafter has a few of these longueurs: the disintegration of Marie's affair with her producer; George's budding romance (Howard, who can be a winning actress, undercuts her character here with giggling and nervous tics); Marcus' travails in a foster home after his mother gives him up. A half-hour cut from the film's middle portion would enhance the mystery and the mood. But even in this section, the movie has its privileged moments. Marcus' adventure in the Charing Cross underground station is one to savor: a crowded platform, an elusive cap, lives abruptly ended and another one saved. Like the tsunami scene, it boasts deft editing and a killer climax.
Damon, more comfortable here than as the South African rugby star in Eastwood's Invictus, gives a marvelously understated reading of George, a man whose gift is a curse, whose unquiet mind is tormented by the deaths and afterlives of strangers. De France, so impressive in the role of the crime lord's girlfriend in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, has to be both tough and vulnerable as Marie, and she adroitly balances her character's conflicts, afflictions and dreams. The fates of Marie and George, and of Marcus too, are destined to converge. This involves as much coincidence as supernatural manipulation; but the payoff could leave viewers in tears.
Or not. The movie will divide some Eastwood fans, conquer others. The naysayers will be grateful that, from this healthy, workaholic actor-director, there is always the promise of a good movie if not here, then hereafter. But if you go with his new picture's slow flow, and stick around for its rapturous resolution, you'll see this as a summing up, a final testament of so many Clint characters, from The Man with No Name to Dirty Harry, from Million Dollar Baby's Frankie Dunn to Gran Torino's Walt Kowalski, for all of whom facing down death was a natural part of life. For Eastwood, and viewers in synch with his mature, melancholy worldview, the hereafter is now.