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Being Agnostic about the Hereafter

Clint Eastwood's new film makes us think about the hereafter.

Warner Bros.
Source: Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood's latest excellent film, Hereafter, tackles a subject many of us spend a lot of time trying to avoid: whether there's a hereafter, and what happens when we and our loved ones die.

Hereafter, the simple, one-word title of Eastwood's film, doesn't come with a definite article before it, giving it a stamp of certainty or religious inflection. The film isn't called The Hereafter, but simply Hereafter, as in—all that follows, including the deaths that occur in the film and those that its protagonists almost miraculously avoid. (Minor spoiler ahead.)

Count me among those haunted and fascinated by Eastwood's film, just as I greatly admired his earlier Mystic River, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Changeling. Even when the subject matter in Hereafter is difficult to watch, as in the opening horror of a massive tsunami hitting land, and later in the film, when we witness terrorist explosions based on recent European history, Eastwood's latest is intense and compelling. As the film's three storylines gradually dovetail, one grasps his willingness to consider "the hereafter" from many different angles, including, finally, whether there really is one.

One of Eastwood's characters, Didier (Thierry Neuvic) plays a French TV producer convinced there's no hereafter. Death is, to him, like being unplugged and joining an "eternal nothing." His girlfriend, reporter and author Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) isn't so sure, and finally writes a book about her near-death experience that draws both admiration and puzzlement. Though we probably come away from her storyline relieved that she's been able to work through her shock, it isn't so clear that trauma wasn't the strongest influence on her later behavior, including involuntary flashbacks to what she barely survived.

Other characters in the film are desperate to communicate with people they've lost to death, in scenes both moving and affecting. That they seem to find an answer through spirit medium George Lonegan (Matt Damon) doesn't exactly confirm Eastwood's stance on the hereafter, though Lonegan (unlike all other mediums in the film) seems unnervingly accurate in the information he relays from the dead. In the enigmatic shots of the "hereafter" that Eastwood presents, though, what we see resembles less an afterlife or paradise than a dazed and trance-like projection from semi-consciousness.

Certainly, Eastwood's emphasis on the "hereafter" is more secular than heavenly. Any religious meaning we attach to the film also has to collide with the shock of witnessing a natural event killing untold numbers of innocents. Anyone viewing their God as responsible for secondary causes would have to contend with something more there than the cliché that he or she "moves in a mysterious way."

Even Matt Damon's seemingly accurate communication with the dead, at the film's end, leaves one in a state of fascinated doubt about the status of his speech and what he's saying. We're left with enormously big questions, mostly unanswered, about what comes after. Follow me on Twitter @christophlane