At a recent promotional screening of Hereafter, I felt the crowd shudder in discomfort, and I was pretty sure I knew why. After the film, in the hall of the megaplex, my suspicions were confirmed. A young audience member complained, "There were SO MANY subtitles."
Yes, much of Hereafter, 80-year-old director Clint Eastwood's meditation on death and immortality, is in subtitled French. And you don't see a lot of subtitles at the megaplexes. That probably reveals something about insular American tastes, and maybe even about -- I'm only half-joking when I say this -- the state of American literacy. Suffice it to say: based on a misleading preview, audiences might expect from Hereafter a mainstream American movie-going experience, complete with bankable star (Matt Damon) and striking special effects. What they'll find, though, is in significant part a talky European melodrama that requires them to do some reading. I find it pretty compelling.
The most vivid image from that preview is the tsunami that inundates a tropical resort. This occurs in the opening moments of the film, and it is horrifying. It begins one of three interlocking narratives. In this one, a French broadcast journalist (Cécile De France) nearly perishes in the tsunami. She tries to go back to work but is haunted by visions she saw before she was revived: unearthly light, blurry faces.
In another story, an English schoolboy (George McLaren) is killed in an accident, and the authorities take his twin brother, Marcus (Frankie McClaren), from their addict mother. Marcus languishes in foster care and, grief stricken, tries to contact his brother with help from a series of quack mediums. The scenes with the mediums are grimly funny.
Finally there is George (Damon), a quietly desperate San Francisco factory worker who has legitimate supernatural powers. With his entrepreneurship-minded brother (Jay Mohr), he used to have a successful spirit-medium business. But George has given up doing readings, because, as he says, they ruin any chance he has at a normal life. In a vignette, he begins a romance with a pretty, friendly woman (Bryce Dallas Howard), but his powers undo it.
In structure the film favorably recalls Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Desperate, lonely people, strangers to each other, are drawn together as they grapple with the supernatural. (Spielberg has an executive producer credit.) This plays out a little more neatly than I would prefer, but I am gratified by a scene near the end, in which Damon delivers, in a calm monotone, a stunning and wry message from beyond. It is powerful wish fulfillment for anyone who's ever been sad when a loved one died.