Dirty Harry’s Supernatural Softness
There I am sitting in a theater for a Saturday afternoon matinee, when I realize I am the youngest person, at least by my reckoning, by a good 10 or 15 years. Unlike most of the adult couples around me, I’ve also come to see the movie by myself. I am not ashamed in the least that I’ve come to see heartthrob Matt Damon star as a medium in Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood. Why? Well, because it is not the “heartthrob” that has made me part with my $10 but rather the fact that the central character in this story is a medium. I left relieved that Eastwood had chosen to portray spiritualism in a realistic mode, but utterly disappointed by the film’s ending. Where’s Dirty Harry when you need him?
Here’s the short summary released by Warner Brothers:
A drama centered on three people who are haunted by mortality in different ways. George (Damon) is a blue-collar American who has a special connection to the afterlife. On the other side of the world, Marie (de France), a French journalist, has a near-death experience that shakes her reality. And when Marcus (Frankie/George McLaren), a London schoolboy, loses the person closest to him, he desperately needs answers. Each on a path in search of the truth, their lives will intersect, forever changed by what they believe might-or must-exist in the hereafter.
There it is in a nutshell, right? The intersection of three lives because they are collectively haunted by mortality. As you can imagine, this naturally under- and over-sells many aspects of the film.
First, Matt Damon’s character George has significantly more than a “special connection to the afterlife.” He is, unequivocally, a medium; that is, he speaks to dead people. [The film incorrectly uses the word psychic several times, but I’ll try not to nitpick.] Within the world of the film George’s gifts are real, which means that there really is a hereafter and that George has unique access to it. Yet this doesn’t stop George from explaining his belief that his access to the hereafter can be explained scientifically.
Second, Marie’s recent near-death experience happens in an anonymous Asian resort town devastated by a Tsunami. To my knowledge this is the first fictional film since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami to show a major Tsunami-related disaster. [Naturally I am not counting 2012 or any other apocalyptic disaster films.] Marie, played satisfying by Cécile De France, lets the audience see the effects of experiencing the hereafter and coming back. That the near death experience is set in a Tsunami strikes me as significant in two ways. Initially, it anchors the fiction of the story in real world tragedy. It does so with a delicate hand, leaving the location anonymous and avoiding a grittier depiction of the disaster. (I should note that there were audible gasps and cries of “oh my” in the audience during these scenes.) But using the tsunami in the context of the story seems to offer consolation to those directly affected by the real 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. I figure we can applaud Eastwood for this.
Real tragedies provide additional background later in the film when Marcus, a twin who has lost *spoiler*, is saved from *removed to prevent spoilers*. Like the use of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, this may be the first time that *removed to prevent spoilers* has appeared in film. The gasps in the audience were even greater during this scene, and one man began a sort of nervous laughter that, at least to me, betrayed his discomfort with seeing this event on film.
You can imagine that I think that the summary has under-sold the level of truth offered by Hereafter. It is not equivocating about its positions–There is life after death; people have legitimate near-death experiences; and some folks have special gifts that let them communicate with the dead.
In contrast to other spiritualist films, such as the gotcha-style of Sixth Sense (1999) or the late 19th century glamor of The Illusionist (2006) or the occultism of films like Hellboy (2004) and Anastasia (1997), Hereafter takes a fairly even handed approach to communication with the dead. What struck me most was the recurring form of the characters’ curiosity with the question “what happens when we die.” This is is a story about survivors, those left behind, and while they are deeply concerned with what might happen to them when they die, the existential crisis that emerges is much less about answering that question than learning how to deal with living with death. In that sense, saying this is a film about “mortality” is less accurate than saying it is another indictment of our culture’s failure to adequately deal with death and dying. The characters all struggle with survivor-syndrome and we see how easily it can emotionally cripple and incapacitate them. It doesn’t make spiritualism glamorous or present it as a solution for everyone’s problems. It is equal parts boon and curse.
The film falls apart, however, precisely because of how normal it attempts to make things. George is desperate for love but unable to find an intimate relationship because of his gift. His touch reveals things about people that are best kept secret. In the end he finds love by finding someone who understands his gift but doesn’t need it to solve their problems. [The person he finds is looking precisely for someone who understands the hereafter and therefore the knowledge imparted by his gift, but not its application. She doesn’t need a reading; she needs someone who can validate her near-death experience.] So, what is pitched and marketed as a drama turns out to be a romance. Unfortunately, the genre-blending here utterly failed to resolve the film for me. I never cared enough about George’s desire for love, nor did I buy into romance as a solution for his spiritual gifts. Even if he can live happily ever after with this woman, it’s not as if all of his gifts suddenly disappear. Nor does love seem to be an adequate answer to the question of our mortality, “what happens when we die,” or how to live with death. Is love supposed to be a blinder that conceals our mortality?
So is the moral of the story, “You’re not alone” or “We’re in this together”? At least one other reviewer thought so. Others were less enthusiastic about the entire enterprise and called it a “nagging disappointment” filled with cliches. And I can’t believe that Time Magazine said the ending was a “rapturous resolution” that suggested the “hereafter is now.” I’m not sold on any of these readings, but I am sure of one thing. Bring this guy back: