From here to eternity

Clint Eastwood's eagerly awaited new film approaches the subject of death and the afterlife in an unusual and very moving way. Geoffrey Macnab celebrates the Hollywood veteran's boldness and laments cinema's frequent reluctance to face the hereafter

Geoffrey Macnab

"We obviously have a long way to go before we can deal with death in anything approaching a sensible fashion," the French journalist Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) declares late on in Clint Eastwood's new film, Hereafter. She has had a near-death experience during a tsunami in Indonesia.

Her reaction to that experience baffles and alienates her colleagues. They can't understand why a hard-headed reporter has begun to talk and think about death in a manner that seems to them flaky and mystical.

Discomfiture and embarrassment in the face of death is something that film-makers have often felt too. Obviously, death is not ignored. In action flicks, cop dramas, war films and Westerns, the death count is often enormous.

Terminal-illness melodramas, in which stars manage to die without ever smudging their make-up, are still made in abundance. Horror movies are nothing if not morbid. However, very few of these films are actually about death.

Eastwood's Hereafter is unusual in that death is the starting point. The bravura opening, in which locals and holidaymakers get caught up in a tsunami, evokes memories of Irwin Allen disaster movies of the 1970s.


Those films, though, were all about a battle for survival. Craggy-jawed heroes like Gene Hackman or Steve McQueen would always help lead victims of the inferno or earthquake to safety in the final reel. Eastwood's film offers no such consolation.

Those who survive do so only by luck. They then have to cope with their guilt and confusion at what they have come through.

Hereafter is likely to prove a very disconcerting experience for some of Eastwood's fans. The 80-year-old auteur's new feature is a very long way removed from the world of Magnum Force and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Instead of a vigilante or a cop lifting a gun, we have Matt Damon as a blue-collar American lifting the hands of bereaved men and women and seeing into their souls.

The film addresses psychic phenomena in a sincere way. There are wry montage sequences showing fake mediums, and mountebanks preying on the credulity of the bereaved. However, the film also shows characters seemingly communicating with their loved ones beyond the grave.

At his age, and with his reputation, Eastwood doesn't seem in the slightest concerned that some viewers may think he is turning into a latter-day Doris Stokes. Hereafter deals with death and bereavement in a far more intelligent way than most mainstream movies.

The film was scripted by Peter Morgan. It is in a very different register from Morgan's earlier work like The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon or The Damned United, all based on real characters and events.

The structure is akin to that of the screenplays of Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams) in which the lives of different protagonists living in different environments, often many thousands of miles apart, are drawn together.

To its critics, this "butterfly-effect" approach to screenwriting seems deeply contrived: it is just too convenient that one character's actions will have a ripple-effect that reaches across continents. Morgan wrote the Hereafter screenplay after the death of a close friend.

"He died so suddenly. So violently. It makes no sense," Morgan recalls. "His spirit was still alive around us, at his funeral I was probably thinking what everyone else was: where has he gone?

"We can be so close to somebody, know everything about them, share everything with them, and they're gone and suddenly we know nothing."

The film has received a mixed response in the US, where it was released in the autumn. Certain critics were clearly wrong-footed by the director's turn toward the uncanny. You can see why the project attracted Eastwood.


He is coming toward the end of his career. Two years ago, after he made and starred in Gran Torino, he declared that he would stop acting, although he would continue to direct. It seems apt that, he should choose to take on a film that contemplates mortality. Hereafter sees Eastwood working at a different tempo and in a different locale than his previous films. This may not be Eastwood at the height of his powers but he remains a master storyteller.

In cinema, death is very seldom "tame" or accepted with resignation. Sudden death is fetishised and even celebrated. Film has the ability to capture the very moment of death.

This is what drives the psychopathic killer in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) who murders women and tries to preserve on film the very instant that they die. It's the same instinct which leads the Zapruder film footage of the assassination of President John F Kennedy to be played again and again.

Of course, debates about the ethics of showing mass death on screen are a long way removed from the preoccupations of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter. This is an intimate and very closely focused film about a group of characters dealing with the death of others.

Damon is the psychic "cursed" by his ability to communicate with the dead. De France is the traumatised woman trying to make sense of her own brush with death. Then there is the boy who has lost someone very close to him and is desperate to re-establish a connection.


There are some clunky and very cornball moments along the way, but the bravery of the film lies in its matter-of-fact approach to what seems outlandish subject matter.

Hereafter isn't a supernatural drama in the vein of The Sixth Sense, with a grandstanding final-reel revelation. Eastwood's aims are more modest.

In its own idiosyncratic fashion, his film confronts themes other film-makers have steered away from, because they think it is too morbid or too silly.

There are few movies in any genre that don't at least touch on death, but either to crank up the emotions or to drive the plot. In Hereafter it is, for once, right in the foreground.