Making an earnest cinematic argument for the immortality of the soul and the existence of an afterlife without delving into mushy sentimentality is a difficult task for even the most gifted and “serious” of filmmakers. Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson discovered as much last year when his sappy grandiose adaptation of the ethereal bestseller The Lovely Bones opened to scathing reviews. Critics by and large tend to bristle at movie renderings of what may or may not await them in that Great Arthouse in the Sky.
And yet filmmakers seem determined to keep trying. The latest to make the attempt is Clint Eastwood who throughout his celebrated directorial career has certainly demonstrated a firm grasp of the death part of the equation. His filmography with a few notable exceptions practically revels in it: of his recent oeuvre Invictus is the only work that doesn’t deal with mortality in some significant manner. With his new film Hereafter Eastwood hopes to add immortality to his thematic resume.
The film's narrative centers on three characters each of whom has intimate experience with death and loss. Their stories in true Eastwood fashion can ostensibly be labeled Sad Sadder and Saddest: Marie (Cecile de France) is a French TV news anchor who’s haunted by disturbing flashbacks after she loses consciousness — and briefly her life — during a natural disaster; George (Matt Damon looking credibly schlubby) is a former psychic whose skills as a medium are so potent (the slightest touch from another human being triggers an instant powerful psychic connection a la Rogue from X-Men) they’ve left him isolated and alone; Marcus is a London schoolboy who retreats into a somber shell after losing his twin brother in a tragic car accident (both brothers are played rather impressibly by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren).
Humanity offers little help to these troubled souls surrounding them with skeptics charlatans users and deadbeats none of whom are particularly helpful with crises of an existential nature. Luckily there are otherworldly options. Peter Morgan's script assumes psychics out-of-body experiences and other such phenomena to be real and legitimate but in a non-denominational Coast-to-Coast AM kind of way. Unlike Jackson’s syrupy CGI-drenched glimpses of the afterlife Eastwood’s visions of the Other Side are vague and eery — dark fuzzy silhouettes of the departed set against a white background. Only Damon’s character George seems capable of drawing meaning from them which is why he’s constantly sought out by grief-stricken folks desperate to make contact with loved ones who’ve recently passed on. He’s John Edward only real (and not a douche).
Marie and Marcus appear destined to find him as well but only as the last stop on wearisome circuitous and often heartbreaking spiritual journeys that together with George’s hapless pursuit of a more temporal connection (psychic ability it turns out can be a wicked cock-blocker) consume the bulk of Hereafter’s running time. We know the three characters’ paths must inevitably intersect but Morgan’s script stubbornly forestalls this eventuality testing our patience for nearly two ponderous and maudlin hours and ultimately building up expectations for a climax Eastwood can’t deliver at least not without sacrificing any hope of credulity.
It should be noted that Hereafter features a handful of genuinely touching moments thanks in great part to the film's tremendous cast. And its finale is refreshingly upbeat. Unfortunately it also feels forced and terribly unsatisfying. Eastwood an established master of all things tragic and forlorn struggles mightily to mount a happy ending. (Which in my opinion is much more challenging than a sad or ambiguous one.) After prompting us to seriously ponder life’s ultimate question Eastwood’s final answer seems to be: Don’t worry about it.
The film follows the journey of the title character (Kirsten Dunst) the winsome sweet-natured teenage archduchess of Austria who is dispatched by her family in the late 1700s into a politically advantageous marriage to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) the future king of France. While the trappings of the royal palace at Versailles are as extravagant and glamorous as any traditional historical biopic the heart of the film is Marie Antoinette’s smaller more emotional world as she struggles to fit in with the puzzling customs and often-stern judgment of a foreign court. She must also fulfill her duty to her own nation—namely producing an heir to safeguard their political status a task that proves increasingly frustrating as she romances her maddeningly reticent new husband. Much like any modern young woman in our era of airhead heiresses she initially soothes her angst by indulging in excessive shopping sprees wild parties and flirtations with a hunky war hero. But she also eases into her role on the throne only to find that her starving angry peasant subjects have taken a harsh view of the gossip surrounding her profligate behavior as they mount the French Revolution. As a child actress who worked steadily into her teens and early twenties Dunst has always been a fresh sunny presence on screen in popcorn films like Bring It On but who could also reveal an ability to access darker corners as she did in her debut performance in Interview with the Vampire and in Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides. But after her breakthrough role in 2002’s Spider-Man most of Dunst’s subsequent efforts seem to have be chosen more to build her Hollywood stardom than challenge her acting skills and perhaps unchallenged she delivers performances more competent than compelling. Marie Antoinette is a welcome return to a more complicated and conflicted role and she rises to the challenge admirably with her most appealing and most affecting turn to date. Utterly capturing the queen’s evolution from naïf to sophisticate gaining wisdom and maturity from her youthful frustrations and overindulgences Dunst makes Marie’s plight utterly relatable and imbues virtually every scene of the film with a watchability that outdoes even the luxe production design. In only her third—and most ambitious—film writer-director Sofia Coppola continues on her hot streak. Already one of the most atmospheric and subtle helmers working in Hollywood she not only marries her modern dreamlike style to the opulent visuals of a historical drama she effectively redefines Marie Antoinette in a way that any alienated over-her-head teen of today could appreciate while also showing just why the population at large might have considered her a monster. As Coppola is the quiet introspective daughter of a revered famously over-the-top filmmaker she too was thrust into a sophisticated world at an early age and was with her much-panned acting turn in The Godfather Part III certainly misunderstood by the public if not reviled. One is tempted to think a certain reliability applies to her success with her story. But her assured skills as a filmmaker are what really make Marie soar—even her experimental touches such as the use of anachronistic music on the soundtrack (the Strokes Bow Wow Wow New Order and others appear alongside Vivaldi). It make perfect sense in context the kind of tunes a disaffected adolescent might play in her bedroom while wondering why no one understands them. That’s just the icing; the rest of Marie’s delectable cake is well worth eating.