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October 31, 2010

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Eastwood's latest marvel

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 is totally unlike anything you have 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 film making style.

"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 have gone before us. But again, there is an elegance and an efficiency in the storytelling that are so very characteristic of his 40 some-odd years behind the camera.

It also is 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. The film's three main characters are toiling within their individual states of loneliness in three different countries, even though they are seeking or making connections to another realm.

When their paths ultimately cross, as you know they surely must, it does not 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. Like Eastwood, Damon has 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 so much personal information about strangers became too great.

Now he lives in a small, tidy apartment and works at a factory, though his older brother (Jay Mohr) keeps trying to convince him that it is his duty, and financially beneficial, to share his gift. But establishing 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. She had been vacationing with her boyfriend (Thierry Neuvic), who also is her news show's producer, when the massive waves hit the coast. She also had been at the top of her game professionally. Now, she questions everything she is 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, and relied only on each other. Add the fact that Jason, the elder by 12 minutes, was the smarter and stronger. Marcus now struggles to navigate the world on his own but is drawn to psychics in hopes of getting guidance from his brother.

Eastwood weaves among these disparate yet intrinsically connected story lines smoothly and without hurry. We 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 is never alienating.

Meanwhile, Eastwood's score for the film, which he injects sparingly, is probably the prettiest he has written, with its mixture of jazz and melancholy. It is another example of how he has taken his signature style and changed it up just enough to keep us guessing.


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