Though countless movies grapple with death and life and the meaning of both, far fewer screw up the courage to deal with what might come after, grappling with an afterlife in a way divorced from religion, just based on the very real hope we all have that there's something on the other side. Most of these movies have failed, primarily because hopes for the afterlife and what we might find there are deeply personal, and even a filmmaker with a strong visual style would have a hard time taking his or her personal hereafter and sharing it with an audience (see Peter Jackson's disastrous Lovely Bones for a prime example).
Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, is a filmmaker with a deliberately low-key approach to everything, and his failure to present the afterlife with any meaning or originality is just the beginning of the many, many faults of Hereafter, a soppy, disorganized melodrama with a lot of big ideas and virtually no significance. Telling three stories linked only vaguely by the notion of death, Peter Morgan's screenplay jumps around a lot of ideas about grief and longing but never really uncovers any of them, and Eastwood's muted direction brings nothing out of the script or the actors, despite the raw emotions on display here. The sole exception is the opening sequence that recreates the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a stunning setpiece of chaos and terror shot perfectly. It's a great start for a film that will never come close to showing that skill again.
One survivor of that tsunami is Marie Lelay (Cecile de France), a French journalist who returns home in a daze, obsessed with the visions she saw in the minutes she spent near-death before being pulled out of the water and revived. Sharing those same visions, but in a professional capacity, is San Francisco resident George (Matt Damon), who spent years as a medium to the dearly departed but turned his back on his gift in an attempt to live a normal life. And over in England, Marcus and Jason (George and Frankie McLaren) are inseparable twin boys raised by a junkie mom, until Jason is killed in a car accident and Marcus is left wondering how he can get in touch with his brother again.
We know from the beginning that the three gloomy sorts will interact eventually, and maybe it would have been a more interesting film to see them all talking about their impressions of the afterlife, rather than moping through their own, generally uncompelling lives. George winds up in a tentative flirtation with his cooking class partner (Bryce Dallas Howard), who when she discovers his gift doesn't have the sense to heed his warnings, and winds up letting him see into a window of her life she'd rather keep shut. Marcus, living with foster parents, seeks out any number of fake psychics to get in touch with Jason, and is mystically, ludicrously rescued from disaster by Jason's ghost (probably?) in the movie's second recreation of a real disaster. Marie starts researching a book on the afterlife even though she's being paid to write one about politics, and somehow seems shocked when her publisher is upset. By the time this happens, though, Hereafter's sense of realism has slipped so far that you might not even notice.
There are effective moments throughout Hereafter, whether it's the quiet effectiveness of Damon's acting when he's not saddled with hammy dialogue or the blatant sentimentality of Marcus's story that, despite some pretty terrible child actors in the role, works the way a Hallmark ad does, whether you like it or not. And because nothing in the movie even attempts as grand a statement or scale as the tsunami sequence, Hereafter doesn't build itself up to be ludicrous, but just falls apart with every bad performance (Jay Mohr, playing Damon's brother, is miscast and grating) or line like "I know you want me to help others, but right now the person I need to help most is myself." Peter Morgan has talked frequently about Eastwood's desire to make the script even though Morgan himself didn't feel it was finished, and I can't help but believe that someone with less of a "shoot it and print" approach to filmmaking might have been able to shape Hereafter into something more coherent.