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.
Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) is an emotionally closed-off British ex-con who heads to Canada to visit an old lover. When he misjudges the distances between Ontario and Winnipeg he rents a car and starts driving across the snowy winter landscape. He encounters a charming young woman named Vivienne Freeman (Emily Hampshire) who hitches a ride and begins to thaw out his frozen heart but then tragedy strikes as the pair has a terrible car accident and Vivienne is killed. Alex is left with terrible guilt and so drives to the little town of Wawa to offer condolences to Vivienne’s mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver). Surprisingly Alex discovers that Linda is a high-functioning autistic and as he agrees to help her plan the funeral an unlikely friendship develops. Meanwhile Alex also meets Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) Linda’s beautiful next-door neighbor; his relationships with those two very different women change him very unexpected ways. Forget Ripley from the Alien flicks! With Snow Cake Sigourney Weaver gives the performance of her life. She transforms completely into Linda Freeman a middle-aged woman whose life is framed – but not controlled – by her autism. From her slightly twitchy movements to the far-off look in her eyes Weaver masterfully captures the physical elements of the disorder; add in the completely believable dialogue that reveals Linda’s inner emotional state and the portrayal is one that just might bring Weaver an Academy Award for her work. Alan Rickman is equally affecting as a man whose personal anguish threatens to shut him down completely; his emotional reawakening is so real that we can’t help but empathize and root for him. Carrie-Anne Moss is quietly effective as the sexually restless neighbor and Emily Hampshire is a beam of sunshine in her short time on the screen as Linda’s daughter a real face to watch for the future. Welsh director Mark Evans cut his teeth on British television and small films like Trauma. With Snow Cake he proves that he’s got a talent for telling emotional stories without descending into sentimentality. That’s a fine line and one that makes this film sit head and shoulders above those Lifetime channel flicks that send a chill up the spine of every red-blooded male (and many of us females too). First-time screenwriter Angela Pell should get massive credit as well. She tapped into her personal experience as the parent of an autistic boy translating that knowledge into creating a portrait of a grown woman (and mother of a normal daughter) who has successfully made her way through life despite her disability. The potent combination of those two talents united with across-the-board fine acting make Snow Cake a supremely satisfying cinematic experience. Watch for this one during awards season later this year.