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Forget Oscar — ‘Hereafter’ is just more boring dreck from Clint Eastwood

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Posted: Friday, November 5, 2010 12:40 pm

I hang my head in shame over my absence from Battle Royale these past couple weeks despite repeated promises of bustling activity, and I’ve no adequate excuse apart from the fact that I’ve been settling back into a 70-hour work week (split between two jobs) and have been very, very pressed for time. The election frenzy is finally over and things will calm down, and in the meantime please accept the meager update I’ve recently offered. More is coming. For reals.

Turning our attention to this column: This week we look at Clint Eastwood’s unforgivably dull “Hereafter,” but next week things look to liven up a bit with Todd Phillips’ “Hangover” follow-up “Due Date” (for further evidence that star Zack Galifianakis rocks, see his recent appearance on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” and read about his reported smackdown against Mel Gibson over “The Hangover 2” — good stuff).

After that we’ve got either “Skyline” or Tony Scott’s “Unstoppable” (which I suspect I akin to choosing between a kick in the crotch and a punch in the throat), then the thankfully 3D-free “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1,” followed by… I don’t even know, guys. I’m looking over a list of upcoming releases to finish off the year, and things don’t look too promising.

David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know?” and the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” may well be the only wide-release films worth getting excited about for the remainder of the year, and considering that we’ve got almost two months to go … Well, that’s just terrifying, isn’t it? I would offer you words of comfort, but I have none.

At this point, all I can do is throw myself at your feet and beseech and implore you to explain to me, for the love of God, why in the past 20 years Clint Eastwood has emerged as such a beloved filmmaker. I just don’t get it. On the basis of the undeniably brilliant “Unforgiven” and “Gran Torino,” I must concede that he’s got a knack for subversive genre recasting. But apart from those two films, which benefited greatly from their status as career-summarizing meta-projects, what, exactly, has Eastwood offered us in his decades of filmmaking that explains the aura of respect and genuine veneration that surrounds the man?

I’ve no problem recognizing him as an icon of rugged badassery, but when you’ve had as many creative missteps as Eastwood has as a director, there’s simply no basis for such deep admiration. “Million Dollar Baby” was a morally repugnant, bizarrely remote slice of socio-economic torture porn, “Invictus” is the only film I’ve seen in more than a decade of reviewing that actually put me to sleep, and “Mystic River” is little more than a well-acted but dramatically muted police procedural that was a million times better when it was called “Gone Baby Gone.”

And yet the accolades keep rolling in. Some critics and audiences are beginning to catch on, but even his latest, the afterlife drama “Hereafter,” is racking up its share of four-star reviews. Yet here is a movie that is just as inert, just as faux-“old-fashioned,” as most of Eastwood’s other efforts these past couple decades.

See, there’s a line between “methodically paced” and “boring.” Like pornography, I may not be able to give you a concrete definition of what that line is, but I know it when I see it. And I’ve seen Eastwood cross it many times, believe me, but never with such apathy. In “Hereafter” he’s working with the same absence of visual or structural style that has made him an inexplicable superstar, but I suppose that’s to be expected. Less expected is the film’s near-total lack of dramatic charge or flow.

It’s like everyone involved — from Eastwood to usually dependable screenwriter Peter Morgan to the cast and crew — took a fistful of Ambien, read some New Age lit and decided to make the definitive statement about life and death without ever actually considering the fact that they have no broad thesis. At all. What, exactly, is the movie even about?

You tell me: We open with a (admittedly, spectacularly filmed) depiction of the tsunami that wrecked havoc in the Indian Ocean in 2004. A vacationing French journalist has a near-death experience after failing to save a little girl’s life, and over the course of the next year she abandons her prior professional interests to write a book on the global conspiracy to silence scientific research into the afterlife.

Our second parallel story involves a young boy in London who loses his twin brother to a car accident that occurs while the brother is picking up methadone for their junkie mother. (Shades of “Million Dollar Baby”-style poverty fetishism here? Methinks so.) The boy tries to find a psychic to contact his brother’s spirit, with no success.

The unifying story thread involves a former psychic (played by Matt Damon, who has given us better work) who ditched the high-pressure lifestyle for a simple existence as a factory worker. He sometimes performs readings, but they rarely go well and his “gift” always poses some kind of problem for his personal life. Eventually, he decides to travel and “find himself.”

So ... What the hell is all this? Of course the stories eventually intertwine on a literal level, but only superficially, and without much thematic relevance. By the end, some things have been resolved and some characters have forged immediate (and therefore meaningless) connections to each other, but to what end? For the life of me, I can’t figure out what “Hereafter” is trying to say about the human need for an afterlife. Somewhere in this mess is a potentially compelling portrait of the commoditization of salvation, but unfortunately it’s been lost in the white noise of Eastwood’s storytelling “technique.”

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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