A tsunami pummels an Indonesian beach town at the beginning of "Hereafter," drowning untold thousands, snapping palm trees and tossing cars down narrow roads like toys.
The enormous, special effects-laden sequence opens the film on a jaw-dropping note, and it's totally unlike anything you've ever seen Clint Eastwood direct before. Yet the clarity with which he depicts the chaos, and the visceral reactions he evokes from the street-level perspective he takes, are very much hallmarks of his filmmaking style. We're being sucked under and swirled about, too, but there's nothing gratuitous or needlessly dizzying: It just feels real.
"Hereafter" itself is a departure for Eastwood thematically as it tackles questions of what happens after we die and whether we can communicate with those who've gone before us. But again, there's an elegance and an efficiency in the storytelling that are so very characteristic of his 40 some-odd years behind the camera.
It's also an unusual offering from writer Peter Morgan, whose previous screenplays include the crisp, incisive political profiles "Frost/Nixon," "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland." Morgan says the sudden, violent death of a close friend inspired him, and his writing here is more somber, contemplative. All three of the film's main characters are toiling within their individual states of loneliness in three different countries, even though they're seeking or making connections to another realm.
When their paths ultimately cross — as you know they surely must — it doesn't have quite the emotional payoff you might have been looking for, but the journey each of them takes is never short of vivid.
Strongest among the story lines in "Hereafter" is the one involving Matt Damon as a reluctant San Francisco psychic; his performance recalls Eastwood's own screen presence, as Damon shares the ability to convey deep emotion in a spare, natural way. He stars as George Lonegan, who made a living for a while communicating with the dead, until the psychological toll of learning so much personal information about strangers became too great.
Now he lives in a small, tidy apartment and works at a factory, even though his older brother (Jay Mohr) keeps trying to convince him that it's his duty — and of great potential financial benefit — to share his gift. But trying to establish even regular relationships remains difficult, as he finds when he takes a cooking class and enjoys a brief flirtation with a fellow student (Bryce Dallas Howard).
In Paris, TV news anchor Marie Lelay (Cecile de France) is still recovering from having survived the tsunami at the film's start. She had been vacationing with her boyfriend (Thierry Neuvic), who's also her show's producer, when the massive waves hit the coast. She'd also been at the top of her game professionally. Now, she questions everything she's made of, having experienced unexplained visions that shook her up. The Belgian actress is as subtle here as she was powerful as a reckless criminal in "Mesrine: Killer Instinct" opposite Vincent Cassel.
Meanwhile, in London, young Marcus loses his identical twin brother, Jason, in an accident. (Both boys are played by George and Frankie McLaren at different times, an intriguing choice.) The twins had grown up poor with an absent, alcoholic mother, leaving only each other to rely on; add to that the fact that Jason, the older brother by 12 minutes, was the smarter and stronger one. Marcus now struggles to navigate the world on his own but finds himself drawn to psychics in hopes of receiving guidance from his brother one last time.
Eastwood weaves between these disparate yet intrinsically connected story lines smoothly and without hurry. The pacing may feel a bit too languid, but it allows us to get to know these characters by observing who they are as opposed to what they do. Even if you have no spiritual inclinations about any sort of afterlife, "Hereafter" refrains from being too preachy or heavy-handed; it's never alienating.
Meanwhile, Eastwood's score for the film, which he injects sparingly, is probably the prettiest he's ever written, with its mixture of jazz and melancholy. It's another example of how he's taken his signature style and changed it up just enough to keep us guessing.