Clint Eastwood moves into risky new territory with old-fashioned grace and sturdy classical filmmaking in "Hereafter." An uneven but absorbing triptych of stories concerning the bonds between the living and the dead, the 80-year-old filmmaker's latest feature is a beguiling blend of the audacious and the familiar; it dances right on the edge of the ridiculous and at times even crosses over, but is armored against risibility by its deep pockets of emotion, sly humor and matter-of-fact approach to the fantastical. Oct. 22 release may divide even Eastwood partisans, but the intriguing supernatural angle should help generate positive B.O. readings.
The screenplay by Peter Morgan (taking a break from dramatizing the lives of British celebrities) quickly establishes three parallel narratives, the first of which kicks off in disaster-movie mode: French TV journalist Marie LeLay (Cecile de France) is vacationing in the tropics with b.f. Didier (Thierry Neuvic) when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits. Borne along by the rapidly moving tides, rendered with inexpert visual effects but a vivid sense of peril, Marie hits her head, blacks out and has an otherworldly vision -- all blinding white light and ghostly silhouettes -- before regaining consciousness.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, construction worker George Lonegan (Matt Damon) tries to repress his apparently genuine psychic gift, fending off requests from acquaintances and strangers hoping to communicate with their lost loved ones. Finally, in London, young twin brothers Marcus and Jason (played interchangeably by George and Frankie McLaren) try to ward off social services by covering up for their alcoholic mother, yielding unexpectedly tragic consequences.
Eastwood allows each of these stories to develop in unhurried fashion, always keeping the specter of death hovering in the background. Marie returns to Paris but has trouble readjusting to her job after her traumatic experience, while one of the boys, Marcus, becomes eerily obsessed with psychic phenomena. And George, in an unusually charming development, joins an Italian cooking class (taught by Steven R. Schirripa, boisterously channeling Emeril Lagasse), where he's paired with a beautiful stranger, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard).
The question that propels "Hereafter" is how these three yarns will eventually converge (the answer: creakily), and on the face of it, this fractured, globe-trotting tale of fate and mortality bears a strong resemblance to the work of scribe Guillermo Arriaga, specifically "Babel." But while the film trades in too many coincidences -- suffice it to say the tsunami is not the only real-world disaster invoked -- the mitigating charm of Eastwood's approach is how subdued, unportentous and laid-back it is. He seems in no hurry to establish the missing links, trusting us to engage with the characters before we know exactly how they fit together.
As though aware of the raised eyebrows that may greet his borderline-schlocky choice of material, Eastwood pauses midway through to register a healthy measure of skepticism; a montage shows one character consulting a series of psychics, every one of them a charlatan. Even still, we're meant to take it on faith that Damon's George is the real deal (his gifts are even given a biological explanation), and the film presents his frequent glimpses of the netherworld -- similar to Marie's near-death visions -- in an unquestioning manner that viewers will have to either accept or reject.
As unabashedly suffused with emotion as any of Eastwood's films, "Hereafter" is finally less interested in addressing life's great mysteries than in offering viewers the soothing balm of catharsis; the portal to the beyond, as conceived here, serves merely as a practical gateway into inner peace, romantic renewal and, most consolingly, the reassurance that our loved ones never leave us. This sentiment is conveyed when George reluctantly performs a reading for Melanie, all the more powerful for its apparent disconnection from the rest of the story.
The fact that much of the film is set in Europe lends it a unique look and texture in the helmer's oeuvre; Tom Stern's camera at times pulls back to take in the varied landscapes, but bathes many of the interiors in his customary inky blacks, the intense chiaroscuro serving to up the hushed, spiritual quality of the film's most intimate moments. As usual, Eastwood's score is a tad overinsistent if melodically spare, its few notes reiterated on various instruments (including piano, guitar and harmonica), and supplemented here by snippets of Rachmaninoff.
Damon and de France (toplining her first major studio picture) are sympathetic enough as characters who are more or less at the mercy of the cosmos, while the brothers McLaren eventually cast off their Dickensian-moppet shackles, particularly in the final reel. But it's Howard whose relatively brief presence really lingers, her performance starting off goofy and ingratiating before taking on an almost otherworldly intensity.