I maintain that it is tremendously gratifying to have a filmmaker like Clint Eastwood, who at the tottering old age of 80, when most directors have long since called it a career, is still pushing himself to do new things, even when those things work intermittently, if at all. In the last five years, the sometime manly dude director has put together two incredibly different war films about the same battle, a crime thriller uncertainly blended with a '40s-style women's weeper, a Fuller-esque cheapie about race and urban identity, and a stubbornly naïve political fable wrapped inside an underdog sports picture, and now he comes along with Hereafter, a plaintive and moody, half-baked and unashamedly earnest globe-sprawling drama about how people feel about death. It works occasionally; it misfires often; and it's different from everything else being made right now, though whether that's an inherent good is in the eye of the beholder.

The first thing to know about the film is that it is hobbled by its screenplay by Peter Morgan, whose stock in trade till now has been embellished historical dramas about world leaders. And the first thing to know about the screenplay is that it isn't Morgan's fault:
I sent it to my agent, and they sent it to—in a very experimental stage—Kathy Kennedy, and she sent it to Steven Spielberg, and he sent it to Clint. And he said he wanted to do it and not change anything. He said, "This is something that really spoke to me, this is delicate and gentle, I'd like to work it. I like things to be instinctive." And for me, I quite like to hone things down, I like to work something to the ground. He thought that with material like this, if you were to do the work, it would become too premeditated and cultured. He said what's beautiful about the movie, in his eyes, is its rawness, and its lack of schematic intent.
That's a darling sentiment for a director to have, but it leaves us with the awkward fact that Hereafter was cobbled together from a first-draft screenplay, and it absolutely feels like it. The tripartite story follows three characters: Marie LeLay (Cécile de France), a French newswoman vacationing in the tropics when a tsunami hits (we are invited to guess that this was the massively deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) and has a near-death experience; George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a San Francisco factory worker who, until recently, had a profitable business as a medium, helping the bereaved to communicate with their loved ones; and Marcus, a young London boy whose twin Jason (both boys are played by twins Frankie and George McLaren, with no indication of what actor plays which character at any given point) has just died, sending Marcus into a savage spiral of depression. Each of these plots explores, in some way, the human connection to - and desire for - the afterlife. And to the surprise of nobody, all three collapse in upon one another late in the film.

It's not so much the scenario that's a problem; I'm not even personally offended by the pat, desultory way that the subplots come together - it strikes me less as an unwieldy coincidence that the three stories we've been following happen to come together, rather that we have been following those stories because they ultimately come together. It's the intermittent clumsiness with which the stories have been fleshed-out: the matter of George's night school cooking classes, for example, where he meets the charming and flighty Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), and grapples with the difficulty of forming a genuine human bond when all he can see is her dead relatives. Why cooking school? Is Melanie the first woman he's felt close to, or is this a routine thing? Does any of this go anywhere, or is it just padding for what the film apparently concludes is its A-plot? Such complaints can apply to any of the sequences, and the film as a whole, and their are other complaints besides. Like: what's with all the non-white characters popping up on the fringes to be as trite and unconvincing and "othered" as possible?

Still, there's something disarmingly compelling about the story that keeps working despite the rickety framework Eastwood and Morgan have forced upon themselves. It comes down to, I think, conviction - the filmmakers are entirely committed to the questions they are asking, which are not always clearly stated, but are still somehow intuitively obvious. It is a blatantly sincere movie, one of the most sincere that Eastwood has ever directed, and I for one take him to be among the most sincere filmmakers now living: never driven by irony, nor style, nor by the cynical desire to win awards (though his career certainly looks that way; I suspect that this is an accident, that Eastwood simply has the pedestrian tastes of the Academy and that prestigey Oscarbait is, legitimately, what interests him), but because he finds a story fascinating and he wants to explore it.

And that is why, though it is massively defective, Hereafter works: the filmmakers honestly and fully care about what they're doing, so much that they're blind to its problems (Never underestimate the power of engaged filmmmakers - they genuinely respect their subject and their audience, and that shines through anything. It's why Eastwood remains vital while fellow workaholic old man director Woody Allen so often drifts into bitter self-parody). It's fair enough: the film's subject is one of the few genuinely universal experiences of the human race, and one that is not given cinematic study very often. And when a film is about death, it's usually a study in impending mortality - something that would be understandable if indulgent of the octogenarian director, and yet Hereafter absolutely never once feels like the work of an old man trying to reconcile himself to dying. It is instead the work of a vaguely spiritual but unreligious pair of storytellers wondering for the sake of it - somewhat unsatisfying as drama, but anything else would have been presumptuous beyond words.

At heart a depiction of human beings suffering and believing, Hereafter relies to a great extent on its actors, and they do it justice: Damon, as should surprise nobody, commits everything he has to his role, playing a miserable sack of a man without any trace of ego. His co-leads are every bit his equal: the brothers McLaren are amazingly expressive and unforced (save for the odd flat line-reading here and there), and its quite impossible to tell that Marcus is, theoretically, being played by two actors (suggesting that Eastwood has an affinity for working young actors that he has largely not explored, at times to his great detriment). And it is absolutely wonderful to see de France, best known to American audiences (if at all) for the torrid 2003 horror film High Tension, given the opportunity to prove that she is a genuinely worthy actress capable of breathing life into a character made up of half-assembled ideas and giving one of the most sensitive, tender performances of the year. The whole cast is actually pretty outstanding, in fact, with character actors like Thierry Neuvic and Richard Kind, and some fine work by people I've never heard of; the one wildly sour note is Bryce Dallas Howard, saddled with godawful hair and makeup, and given to delivering every damn single one of her lines with a nervous giggle at the end of it.

And too, the film is buoyed up by solid, comfortable craftsmanship, typical work of a director whose modus operandi has been to ignore the existence of cinema after the 1950s - speaking as one who feels that American film craftsmanship (as compared to ingenuity or artistry) peaked between 1940 and 1958, I'm not inclined to call Eastwood out on this point - though Hereafter has some distinct problems on that front. For starters, Eastwood's hobby of scoring his own films has never yielded such drippy, tedious results. More upsettingly, his partnership with Tom Stern, responsible for some of the best-shot films of the '00s, has gone wildly off the rails: though a dark story with solemn edges, Hereafter surely didn't need to be filmed in a uniform language of harsh edge-lighting and steely colors? The cooking school sequences in particular look more like a parody of Eastwood and Stern's work than anything - though the moments that work, work really damn well.

And in general, the laconic ease with which the director glides through the story is restful: his handling of the tsunami, for example, while crippled by wretched CGI (it's photorealistic enough, but there is no weight at all to the water, or to the boats and buildings it destroys), has a curiously counter-intuitive and largely successful lack of intensity. Though we're right in the middle of the rushing water, we never feel a part of it, which might sound cold and detached: but it's a film of observation and reflection. "You are there" theatrics aren't part of that, not for a film that is patently meant to start conversations over dinner after the movie instead of trigger dense feelings right in the moment. That's not necessarily my favorite approach to storytelling; but I'd be lying if I said that I could shake the film off. It isn't flashy and it's not remotely perfect, but it has a knot of sentimental humanism at its core that clings to you, and makes the moments that do work linger and last.