Hereafter is demeaning both to believers and to unbelievers, and for the same reason: It stacks the deck too heavily in one direction. “The evidence is irrefutable,” a researcher tells French TV journalist Marie Lelay (Cécile de France), dropping a sheaf of documentation on life-after-death experiences in her lap. “The X-Files” told us that the truth was out there, but Mulder and Scully never had it this easy.
In the world of this film, there are people like George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a reluctant San Francisco psychic who has only to touch you, even inadvertently, to make instant contact with your departed loved ones on the other side. His information is always detailed and accurate; he never makes a mistake, even when he thinks he does. If people like George existed, even hardcore skeptics like the Amazing Randi would have to admit that psychic powers are real. (Real TV psychics, like John Edward, get a lot more wrong than they get right.)
Even so, Hereafter does provide one voice of skeptical opposition: Marie’s producer and boyfriend Didier (Thierry Neuvic). When Marie asks Didier what he believes happens at death, he shrugs: Death is lights out. Nothing more. When she presses him, he adds: If there were an afterlife, someone would have discovered it — there would be evidence. Later in the movie (spoiler warning), Didier turns out to be a rat who betrays Marie both professionally and personally. Do you think atheists should take that personally?
Hereafter actually floats the idea that the reason more people don’t believe in an afterlife (other than being worthless rats) is that there’s some kind of “conspiracy of silence” suppressing the evidence. Who is behind this “conspiracy,” and what their motivations are, is unclear. Certainly the idea of an afterlife can’t be much of a secret in a world in which Christian burials still take place and Anglican priests talk confidently about heaven (though not necessarily about resurrection). Who would benefit from hiding evidence that death isn’t the end?
Perhaps the most memorable moment, existentially speaking, occurs in a London underground station where a grieving boy almost loses a baseball cap that belonged to someone he was very close to — then has a brush with his own mortality. Though contrived, the scene resonates convincingly with that uncanny experience we sometimes have of how very differently things might have gone but for the most trivial of incidents — and the particulars almost invite us to see an intentionality at work, divine providence or possibly even the presence of a departed loved one.
Unfortunately, the numinous impact of the scene is undercut by a later scene that seems to impose a more trivial interpretation on the event, suggesting that even if a departed loved one was involved, the payoff was still mere coincidence. Lame. (For the spoiler-indifferent, I’ll explain at the end.)
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Hereafter follows a number of separate storylines that converge in the end, with less revelatory impact than you might expect. The story was scripted by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), whose impetus to grapple with the topic of the hereafter came from the death of a close friend. As with Mark Pellington’s Henry Poole Is Here, inspired by the loss of the writer-director’s wife, the result is rather maudlin and unconvincing, at least as regards the miraculous. What both films lack is critical distance on their subject matter. Even Tom Shadyac’s hooey-heavy Dragonfly, starring Kevin Costner, had more critical chops than Hereafter.
Morgan is too good a writer not to invest his characters and situations with real emotions and well-observed human behavior, and Eastwood is a good enough director to make the material about as convincing as it can be. In particular, the complicated relationship between young twins Marcus and Jason (real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren, apparently sharing roles) and their drug-addicted single mother (excellent Lyndsey Marshal) is queasily persuasive and affecting. A flirtation between George and a disarmingly friendly woman named Melanie (appealing Bryce Dallas Howard) that he meets at a cooking class is enjoyable, and a class exercise in blind taste testing, in which first Melanie and then George are blindfolded while the other feeds them, has a quirky romantic vibe.
But the contrivances pile up. George is forever whining that his psychic abilities are “a curse, not a gift,” fundamentally because (a) if he felt otherwise then there would be no drama around his character, and (b) if the premise were given its head, George would get his own TV show, become more popular than Oprah, and prove once and for all that death is not the end. Oh, and George’s fears that his abilities will torpedo any hope of a normal relationship with Melanie ultimately connects with a dark secret in her past. What if she’d had a happy childhood? That would kind of ruin George’s “it’s a curse!” schtick, wouldn’t it?
Meanwhile, what do the dead have to say to the living? The answer is a letdown: It is almost entirely about affairs in this world. They want to apologize for wrongs done, express their love, encourage the mourning to move on. Perhaps it is a purgatorial process. Visions of the afterlife offer glimpses of souls milling about in a light-flooded space, as if waiting for a bus. There’s a brief line or two about an experience of floating or weightlessness, and something I didn’t quite catch about being anything or everything all at once, or whatever.
Notably absent is any indication that our loved ones have been reunited with those who went before — which also means there’s no particular reason to think that when our turn comes we’ll be reunited with them. It also seems as if everyone shares the same fate; messages from beyond are invariably reassuring and positive. Even the priest’s brief funeral homily, which indicates that God rewards us according to our works, also makes out as if everyone goes to Heaven. (Of course, the same could be said for many a real-world homily.)
Most significantly, other than the priest at the funeral, God is absent and undiscussed. How absent is God? So absent that the film opens with a staggering special-effects set piece dramatizing a devastating tsunami that demolishes a resort community — and the existential question that follows is not “Why are innocent people afflicted by such evil circumstances?” but only “What was that I experienced while I was dead just then?” For that, you don’t need a tsunami; a heart attack or a car accident will do.
But Hereafter has no interest in truly ultimate questions. There are near-death experiences, remarkable coincidences, and communication from beyond the grave, but nothing about what it all says about the grand design, or what implications it might have for how we should live our lives, beyond “It’s good to make connections with people who understand.” And, of course, “Don’t be a worthless rat skeptic.”
Does anyone else find this, I don’t know, hollow and unsatisfying? A therapeutic revelation of an afterlife that offers closure for the grieving but no insight that’s any good for facing death ourselves; a gauzy limbo with bright lights and anti-gravity but no indication of community; a nonjudgmental hereafter in which there is no Face to look on with eternal love or eternal hatred … I’m sorry, I have a hard time caring.
I have often said that while I can well understand disbelief, I can’t imagine burying a loved one without faith. By this I mean not just belief in the immortality of the soul or even in the resurrection, but trust in the eternal and omnipotent Creator of the universe. I am still lucky enough to have both of my parents and all of my siblings; Suz has buried her mother and her brother. When the chips are down, the thought that matters to me is not that life goes on, but that God is good, that He loves us, and that we are all of us, the living and the dead, in His hands. Without that, nothing George Lonegan could tell me about my loved ones would be any comfort at all.
P.S. At least the movie includes a number of obviously phony psychics who are making stuff up. There’s also YouTube footage (glaringly fake) of a Fundamentalist preacher proclaiming faith in Christ as well as a Muslim imam, which Marcus encounters on the Internet while researching communication with the dead. All of this is dismissively rejected. Only George, whose abilities may be a freak side effect of a complicated childhood illness involving a brain infection, numerous operations and a number of near-death experiences, is the real deal. Have I mentioned that recourse to mediums (those who claim to communicate with the dead) is contrary to the First Commandment? Just so you know.
P.P.S. (Spoiler warning): In the London underground station, young Marcus’s cap blows off his head. The hat belonged to his recently killed twin brother Jason, and by the time he recovers it, he’s missed the train — which a moment later is destroyed in a terrorist attack. Did Jason save his brother’s life by causing him to lose the hat and miss the train? Possibly … but when George interprets Jason’s intentions later, it seems like it was an accident. Apparently Jason wasn’t trying to save his brother’s life; he just didn’t want Marcus wearing the hat because it was his hat, and he wants Marcus to get over his dependence on Jason and take responsibility for himself. How lame is that?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.