Hereafter suffers from a devastating split personality, a crippling conflict between modes of storytelling competing for attention. Director Clint Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern, master builders of shadowy interior spaces, construct a fascinating infrastructure of corridors and walls drenched in mood and contrasting light. Matt Damon’s psychic, so thoroughly conflicted by his desire to lead a normal existence, is often framed in brilliant medium shots with multiple layers of texture. Eastwood and Stern put an emphasis on static faces looking out windows, longing for what’s just out of reach. The comfort of reflection is rarely available, and this establishes the loneliness streaming through every scene. Yet the segment with Cecile de France, who plays a French reporter and survivor of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, contains a very different visual approach, one defined by bright sunlight, glare, and glean. Hers is a conflict about clarity, and the visual aesthetic matches up perfectly within glossy hotel rooms, posh restaurants, and clean corporate meeting rooms.
Yet Peter Morgen’s insufferable screenplay, most notably the entire thread in England, undermines basically every formal flourish the film has to offer. Even worse, the script ignores its own best elements, belittling the dynamic tension between mainstream discussions about the afterlife and personal experiences with death. The character’s blunt emotional words don’t allow for any subtext, any thought processes beyond the surface melodrama. The use of recent tragedies like the tsunami and the London bombings of 2005 isn’t intrinsically insulting, but the way Morgen manipulates the characters within those events is certainly heinous. The script hinders Eastwood and Stern’s formalism from ever transcending the haunting levels of imagery on the screen, keeping the mysteries of Hereafter hidden in plain sight. This is a film aesthetically obsessed with the humility and innocence of the modern world, a very refreshing approach in our current cinema landscape. But Morgen’s flimsy, suffocating narrative is unwilling to position these elements within an incomplete vision of fledgling humanity. In short, everything gets spelled out for easy consumption. This catch-22 makes Hereafter simultaneously enthralling and reprehensible, a strange combination that will haunt Eastwood fans forever.