Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Postscript to the 48th New York Film Festival: Hereafter

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, from a Peter Morgan original screenplay, has generated frequent, and not altogether unfounded comparisons to Alejandro González Iñárritu's risible effort at disclosing global inter-connectivity, Babel (2006), with which it minimally shares a multi-nationalism in its tripartite presentation of three persons plumbing the mysteries of life after death.  Where Iñárritu's four-parter ambitiously (and for this writer, absurdly) seeks to reveal a socio-political super-structure underlying his apparently unconnected tragic events, Eastwood and Morgan argue rather for a common condition of loneliness* - far less beyond their respective intellectual pay-grades - that links Cécile De France's tsunami survivor, Matt Damon's reluctant medium and child actors Frankie and George McLaren's surviving twin as all explore a permeable afterlife, depicted somewhat inelegantly in a series of bleached, startle-framings.^  Though Eastwood and Morgan in this respect offer a vision, in both senses, of life after death, the filmmakers' answer to the aforesaid proves less cardinal to their treatment and interest in their spiritual cum supernatural subject matter than do the purposes for their characters' contact, as well as the consequences of their interactions.  Indeed, in grounding their work  in the personal causes underlying an exploration of the afterlife, focalized in this instance through the death-defined lives of the invariably sympathetic Damon, De France and especially the identical McLaren's, Eastwood and Morgan have produced work that is perhaps notable foremost for its emphasis on human feeling and on the warmth which it exudes.

Of course, being the latest by Eastwood, latter-day Hollywood's inheritor to the great John Ford for both his insistent reflection on the American experiment and indeed for the breadth of his artistic achievement, Hereafter naturally sustains interest on the most basic authorial level.  As an exploration of its precise historical moment, one of the director's greatest and most consistent accomplishments from the explicitly post-Watergate, post-Vietnam The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) onward, Eastwood's latest perhaps lacks the interest of his previous Invictus (2009), which captured the long-since eclipsed, cross-aisle "hope"-filled immediate aftermath of the current President's election (offering a model in Nelson Mandela, from a center-right perspective, for America's first commander-in-chief of color); nevertheless, Hereafter does at least wink at the current economic crisis in Damon's layoff, the continued threat of global terrorism in a London underground bombing, and most notably of all, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which Eastwood reproduces to great immersive effect in the film's action set-piece opening, wherein the director showcases his unmistakable aptitude for perspectival cutting (with Joel Cox, as always, collaborating on the editing table).  As an expression of Eastwoodian craft, Hereafter likewise reveals the director's hand in both a frequently lower key lighting strategy - with Tom Stern once again stepping in, under the sign of the extraordinary Bruce Surtees - and in its structuring parallelism, which the director has developed throughout his career, after his apprenticeship as Don Siegel's leading man. That Surtees and Siegel come to mind should indicate, parenthetically, that Dirty Harry (1971) remains perpetually the point of origin for Eastwood's corpus.

On the level of theme, Hereafter's strongest debt to the director's previous output emerges in its emphasis on childhood trauma and deprivation, which has remained present in the actor-director's work since his earlier collaborations with his children, Kyle and Alison Eastwood (in Honkytonk Man [1982] and Tightrope [1984] respectively).  In Hereafter, Bryce Dallas Howard's romantic interest proves the victim of childhood sexual assault, a motif explored most notably in the director's late-period masterwork Mystic River (2003), while the McLaren twins' characters struggle with a drug-abusing single mother; in this respect, Hereafter indirectly reflects the director's concern with absent fatherhood, which has found its fullest expression in Eastwood's supreme masterpiece A Perfect World (1993), along with later iterations True Crime (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).  Accordingly, Hereafter proves in both respects a typically personal work for the director, thanks not only to the repetition of the apparently deeply felt aforesaid themes, but in approaching the question of the afterlife as the filmmaker enters his eightieth year.  It is in this sense characteristically the work of an old man.

Whatever false notes Morgan's screenplay ultimately introduces into Eastwood's latest - and it does introduce some in the film's occasionally if not often flat dialog and extreme redundancy (even by the director's conventionally repetitive standards) - it still affords an expansion of the Eastwoodian universe, which is by no means irrelevant to the film's merit.  This is not to say, however, that Hereafter is only notable as a reflection of Eastwood's archetypal concerns: beyond the humanity with which Eastwood infuses his work once again, the director's latest maintains an admirably brisk pacing, while additionally featuring a series of creditable performances achieved in collaboration with the filmmaker.  In the end, Eastwood is more than the sum of his themes, as singular and consistent as they may be; Eastwood remains one of contemporary Hollywood's very best storytellers, even where his material somewhat falters.

Notes: [*] In suggesting a near universal condition of loneliness, Hereafter finds an appropriately European source in Pedro Almodóvar's masterpiece Talk to Her (2002).
[^] Eastwood's afterlife bears some resemblance to purgatory, thereby continuing the Roman Catholic interest of the director's recent Gran Torino (2008).


Matthias Stork said...

An eloquent essay which effectively situates the film in Eastwood's auteurist oeuvre. I specifically appreciate the focus on the director's themes, i.e. childhood trauma, the absence of fatherhood and loneliness. I hold Eastwood in high esteem, both as an actor and a director, and your write-up does him justice. Great work!

Sandra said...

This is a great essay, although I really did not enjoy "Hereafter." I found it slow, uninteresting, and the writing was uninspired. I didn't see it at NYFF but Im hoping to go next year. I've already made plans to book a vacation rental in nyc from MetroFlats.com.