Another year, another Clint Eastwood movie, and another round of awe-stricken commentaries at how he keeps defying all Hollywood’s rules, if not God’s too. Hereafter doesn’t sound like one of his movies, which nowadays means it sounds exactly like one. Many reviewers seemed a bit puzzled by it, and online commentator Jim Emerson extended this into a broader comment on the nature of Clintness: “I'm not sure I could identify a Clint Eastwood movie on sight. Is there an identifiable Eastwood directorial vision or style, apart from a certain willfully "classical" gloss applied to a professional reserve that sometimes borders on indifference? ... when watching a post-Unforgiven Eastwood picture, I frequently detect a peculiar detachment, a feeling that I'm watching something coasting along on auto-pilot without any particular human or artistic vision to guide it…an almost mechanical disengagement from his material. Parts of some of these movies seem to have been made by robots.”
Earlier, in reviewing Eastwood’s Gran Torino, I took this shot at identifying what that “vision” might be:
- … his aversion to over-embellishment, to over-lighting, over-acting, over-anything really counts for something. Despite presumably unlimited access to anything and anywhere he wants, Eastwood somehow manages to retain his maverick credentials. Over and over, his protagonists have to assert their rights and individuality against a corrupt or merely foolish governing machine. The movies aren’t morally complex or strident (Million Dollar Baby’s treatment of euthanasia might be the acid test here); they valorize self-determination, but despise those who fail to grasp their responsibilities (even if on occasion those responsibilities consist of little more than not being an a-hole). Eastwood’s fluid but terse style perfectly fits this instinct. Getting it close enough and moving on resembles an article of faith; dawdling perfectionists belong with the despised paper pushers of the Dirty Harry films.
His subsequent film Invictus, on paper a remarkable swerve into new territory, seemed to me to fit perfectly into this scheme. It’s actually a case study, illustrating Nelson Mandela’s wiliness, vision and strategic acumen through his approach to a particular task (winning the rugby world cup). I said: “There’s a comic element to this, and Eastwood doesn’t shy away from occasional hokiness – in the end, he just about surrenders completely to it...But as Gran Torino certainly showed, he’s not particularly interested in realism as it’s coded nowadays. His affinity with classic Hollywood stylization, filtered through his mega-pragmatic but principled work methods, goes on proving itself the most reliable tool-kit in the business.”
Eastwood might have chosen Hereafter solely to give those trusty tools a bit of a work-out. It’s a tale of the supernatural – three ultimately inter-connected stories asking (very gently) what happens after we die and what does that mean to those of us who are still here? Matt Damon is a psychic trying to escape his gifts and live a normal life. Cecile de France is a French TV journalist who survives the Indian Ocean tsunami, but also catches a glimpse of the beyond, and can’t go on living the same life afterwards. And a London schoolboy loses his identical twin brother but then feels lost in the world without him.
By its nature, the film suggests there is indeed something out there, but otherwise it’s just about as reserved on the matter as a movie could be. Except for the opening recreation of the tsunami, and some vague flashes of next-dimension stick figures and distorted faces, the film sets itself down squarely in earthly dilemmas – Damon’s factory job and would-be romance with a fellow student at his nighttime cooking class, de France’s workplace skirmishes, the little boy being taken from his addicted mother into foster care. One could either see much of this as dawdling, or more constructively as deliberately immersing us in the often arbitrary but inescapable detail of the earthly structures we’ve built for ourselves. Scene by scene, the movie suggests both the heaviness of being and loss that sustain our preoccupation with the hereafter, and the human noise that blocks our way to perceiving it (de France writes a book setting this out in conspiratorial terms; the little boy, trying to contact his brother, suffers through a series of fakes and idiots).
It barely matters, ultimately, that the movie presents some aspect of this as “real.” The final machinations, sealing the characters’ relationships to each other, are entirely earthbound, powered by movie-type coincidences. Going back to my earlier comments then, I’d locate Hereafter comfortably within the expanding Eastwood landscape: another example of getting close enough and moving on, not just in how to make a movie, but as a way of coping with the existential questions that tie many of us up in knots. And that line I had about the characters having to “assert their rights and individuality against a corrupt or merely foolish governing machine” takes on a whole new resonance when the flawed governing machine refers to, basically, existence itself.
In a very different vein, George Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies was a dry-run of sorts for the grandeur of his zombie series – a vision of society exploding from within, pockets of hope and activity being squeezed out one by one, ending on a note of broader impending doom. The trouble flows from a government plane that crashes near a small town, unleashing its biochemically deadly cargo, and Romero is remarkably deft at portraying the resulting mayhem on a low budget. While the often flat writing and acting and the cheesiness in the special effects are limitations of sorts, they’re also a kind of testimony to ragged authenticity, that we’re watching something from the frontlines, unmediated by studio calculation (the awful Carole Bayer Sager/Melissa Manchester song playing over the final credits almost scuppers this all by itself, but not quite).
I recently watched the remake from earlier this year, directed by Breck Eisner, and although it’s a proficient enough entertainment, it doesn’t carry an iota of the same impact. It stays fairly faithful to the original narrative while upgrading the acting chops and the production values; with every notional improvement to the original mix, it just drifts further into self-contained artificiality. What’s most disappointing is that the movie takes a premise full of allegorical possibilities and sidesteps virtually all of them, as if a depiction of present-day grass-roots America decimated from within should actually pin everything on runaway government science rather than runaway everything else. In this respect the movie is much more reassuring than jolting – absent the melodramatic intervention, it tells us the handsome sheriff would still be living happily with the pretty and pregnant town doctor, and the biggest threat to local peace would be the harmless town drunk. Actually it’s even more idyllic than that - he’s an ex-drunk.