For some bizarre reason, marketers opted to make Clint Eastwood's latest work look like a rejected script to an M. Night Syamalon movie in its trailers. What with its catastrophic events and plot centric imagery, you'd think Eastwood had made a disaster movie rather than what the reality turns out to be. This is a much more thoughtful film about death that examines how living characters deal with the aftereffects. Matt Damon's character, Lonegan, is not a protagonist but one character in a larger ensemble piece. Naturally, it benefits marketing to try to isolate this certain aspect of the plot to make this look like a thriller, but it is a impressionist character piece by all means. Even the psychic aspect is played down, and never truly explained.
What that reality turns out to be is something akin to one of the time centric French minimalists like Chantal Akerman and Jacques Rivette. While it never of course becomes a four hour movie about household chores like Jeanne Dielman, it nevertheless is one of the most jarringly French art-house-like films to ever be released as a mainstream American film. Eastwood's decision to leave Peter Morgan's script as a rough first draft is likely part of what's drawing criticism, but this is arguably what makes it so effective as well. Narrative coherence is spurned in favor of genuine CINEMA, people behaving on-screen and showing the effects of great turmoil in every little nuance. Eastwood, known for stripping down rewrites to maintain a certain spontaneous quality in his films (and for shooting very few takes) saw something in this script that he knew wouldn't make it to the final draft. This is how it maintains such a minimal quality.
Of course, such methodology is in tune with French filmmakers like Bresson, a filmmaker who would likely be criticized today for his deadpan performances when what he's really doing is drawing attention to actions rather than performances. Eastwood puts a lot of stock in gesture: hands in particular. Hands are prominently shown whenever a character embraces, and they are also the method through which Lonegan is able to make contact with the afterlife. He tries to make connections through a cooking class, in which he must make use of his hands (and which inevitably leads him to touch the hands of others when he wants least to). There's also a generous use of exteriors, with the running theme of loneliness in crowded locations which anybody whose experienced such trauma (or even lesser traumas) can relate to. It sounds like Eastwood is employing the dreaded preference of "things" to "people," but in reality this is a perfect melding of characters to their environment.
None of this is the kind of post-Elia Kazan acting our country is used to, but each of the actors do a remarkable job in communicating in this way. Damon gives the finest performance of his career, and each of the supporting cast is remarkable as well in the way they REACT, rather than act. A jarring change for the star of Gran Torino, perhaps, but one which works for the material.
And that, I think, is why such mixed reactions come out of those who view this film. Eastwood is not making a heightened film about death, but an understated (despite its moments of sensationalism, which serve as counterpoint) exploration of how people deal with death. What makes it even more difficult is that, despite an optimistic conclusion, no definite resolution is ever reached. We never learn the nature behind Lonegan's abilities, we only get hints at how it may have come about. No religious agenda is preached, nor is religion rejected. Such open ended film-making is vastly beyond even limited releases, and is usually the kind of stuff found on the Criterion Collection decades after its completion. To have a release like this is astounding, but has likely doomed the film financially.
That would be a shame. In a year that has produced solid work ranging from Sorkin and Fincher's The Social Network, Martin Scorsese's woefully underrated Shutter Island, and the hype-driven juggernaut that was Inception, I think Hereafter ranks among the very best of the year. I would even go so far as to call it the first bonafide masterpiece of the decade. I suspect this places me at odds with many people, some of whom have tried to logically argue with me why this was an incompetent film (to them, I would explain that film is not meant to be dictated by plot logic, the most superficial aspect of film-making at best) but as this film goes to show, some things just can't be easily explained away.