'Hereafter': What Eastwood's Film Suggests About the Afterlife

Ghosts wander the screen as the venerable director muses about life after death

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"We can be so close to somebody, know everything about them, share everything with them, and then they’re gone and suddenly we know nothing," said Hereafter screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon). His new film, the latest in a string of Oscar-contending projects from the prolific Clint Eastwood, explores unfamiliar territory for the acclaimed director. Headlined by Matt Damon, who plays a troubled psychic, the plot establishes three "parallel narratives" of characters searching to discover what, if anything, exists after life passes away.

Praised for weaving spiritual themes into a film with blockbuster sensibilities, the movie is also garnering a contingent of detractors who argue that it presents a "basic-cable" rendering of the unanswerable. But some of the nation's most regarded critics are enthralled with the concept, driven to contemplate Eastwood's gentle meditation on the afterlife.

  • 'Has the Power to Haunt the Skeptical, to Mystify the Credulous' gushes A.O. Scott in The New York Times, saying "if anyone could make me believe in ghosts, it would be Clint Eastwood" who has the skill to turn a sentimental story into sturdier stuff. Scott explains the film's depiction of the afterlife this way: it is a "vague, conjectural place, a zone of speculation rather than a freshly discovered and surveyed continent. The fuzzy digital ghosts that occasionally flutter across the screen are more symbolic placeholders than literal apparitions...It leaves you wondering, which may be the most fitting way of saying that it's wonderful."
  • 'An Atypical Spiritual Journey' finds Rolling Stone's film critic, Peter Travers. This "is the first time he's showed any curiosity about what lies on the other side. It's typical of Eastwood's mastery as a director that his approach to the topic is introspective, not inflammatory." As the characters make their way along the spiritual journey, the director coaxes them along "without bias or trendy cynicism...[it] truly is haunting."
  • 'For Intelligent People Who Are Naturally Curious About What Happens When the Shutters Close' observes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, giving the film a four star review. "Hereafter considers the idea of an afterlife with tenderness, beauty and a gentle tact." he writes, noting that Eastwood generally avoided the trappings of the genre. "The closest it comes is the idea of consciousness after apparent death. This is plausible. Many near-death survivors report the same memories, of the white light, the waiting figures and a feeling of peace." Ebert concludes that the film "embodies how love makes us need for there to be an afterlife."
  • More Interested in This Life Than the Next Variety's Justin Chang, argues that the film is "less interested in addressing life's great mysteries than in offering viewers the soothing balm of catharsis; the portal to the beyond, as conceived here, serves merely as a practical gateway into inner peace, romantic renewal and, most consolingly, the reassurance that our loved ones never leave us."
  • Peter Morgan Seems to Be in a 'Trance' When Writing This notes The New Yorker's David Denby about Hereafter's screenwriter. "The bafflement that comes with loss is certainly a strong enough emotion to get a story moving, but, by turning to spiritualism, visions, and the afterlife, Morgan has wandered into hokum without illuminating grief. Most of the movie is not about what the dead mean to the living; it’s about having nice little chats with ghosts, and neither Eastwood nor Morgan has the taste for such flamboyant stuff."
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