Life after death – who better than Clint ‘Dirty Harry’ Eastwood to tackle this emotive, polarising issue? Of course, that’s being harsh on the octogenarian filmmaker whose prolific and multifaceted output over the last decade has surprised everyone, certainly those of us who figured that the mis-steps with which he littered the latter part of the 90s (True Crime, Space Cowboys et al) were indicative of a terminal decline in standards. But the 21st Century has been a triumph for Eastwood; a victory parade rather than an Indian summer, during which he has consistently sought to stretch himself by taking on genres and themes as diverse as blue-collar murder mysteries (Mystic River), female empowerment as bloody hand-to-hand combat (Million Dollar Baby), and the unification of an entire nation (Invictus). And now this intriguing, but strangely coy and ultimately disappointing peek into the afterlife, with which Eastwood nevertheless again breaks new personal ground.
Working from a Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) script, the story opens with a bang: a devastating set-piece that is far more captivating than anything offered up by, say, Roland Emmerich by virtue of its harrowing naturalism in lieu of a sense of blockbusting ‘dynamism’. A more dissimilar pair of filmmakers you’d struggle to find, but the comparison is a fair one – Eastwood entering apocalyptic CGI territory, whatever next? From here, the narrative splinters into three strands: In London, a pair of young twins (the McLarens) try to keep their mother off heroin so the social services won’t remove them from her care, before one of them has to face an even greater tragedy alone; in San Francisco, a retired psychic (Damon) tries to resist pressure from his brother (Mohr) to return to the work which has left him alienated and isolated; and in Paris, a reporter (De France) tries to come to terms with a near-death experience that has shaken her fundamental beliefs and left her with nagging questions.
These three loosely-related storylines play themselves out in parallel to each other, and it’s another sign of Eastwood’s willingness to experiment that it is only in the final fifteen minutes of the film’s two hour-plus running time that they begin to really converge. This, though, is also one of the film’s failings: you know throughout their paths are destined to cross, and by leaving it so late you’re left with the sense of the story being neatly tied up in a pretty bow, rather than vigorously thrashed out to its conclusion. It’s not a sensation you’re left with after watching, say, Amores Perros, and it betrays Eastwood’s distinctly old-Hollywood roots, with the fate of Damon and De France’s characters in particular set to cause cynics in the audience to choke on what’s left of their popcorn.
Then there is the bashful approach to the subject matter. The film is irrefutably a claim to the existence of a life after death, which is all very well and good – until characters start talking about evidence (and not just any old evidence, oh no – ‘scientific’ evidence). It seems fairly incongruous to have a character – a scientist who pointedly refers to herself as an atheist – mention this so-called evidence, without ever detailing it for the audience to deliberate over for themselves. I do not know Eastwood’s religious beliefs – nor do I care – but such an approach could be viewed as leaning dangerously toward the polemical.
The acting is mostly fine, with Damon essaying his most human performance in ages and De France unrecognisable from her turn in Switchblade Romance. It’s not very good form to criticise child actors, so I’ll just say that, in an age of Chloe Moretz, Dakota Fanning and so on, that particular bar has been raised to a height that the McLaren twins, for all their earnestness, can’t quite reach. Much like Eastwood himself, who has done far better than this in recent times – and, with upcoming biopic J.Edgar, very possibly will do again.