Death and the afterlife are touchy subjects no matter who you are, where you come from and what you believe.  There's an instinctive fear and natural apprehension when pondering what happens when we die because of its uncertainty, good or bad.  Yet, at the same time, those two subjects fascinate us and produce an opportunity for everyone to have a theory or hope for what happens in the "hereafter."

Call it the human condition or whatever you like.  Everyone handles death differently and everyone copes with it differently in very distinctive and personal ways.  In any case, because of those strong personal differences, it is very tough to make a populist, wide-reaching movie about it that everyone can snuggle up together and identify with.  If anyone has the chops to try, it's the great Clint Eastwood with Hereafter.  His newest film follows three parallel stories, each in different countries, of three people affected by death in dramatically different ways.

The first story we are introduced to is that of Marie (Cecile de France of High Tension), a popular French television journalist on assignment in Thailand.  In the opening scene, she becomes one of many victims to a devastating ocean tsunami (an intense scene with executive producer Steven Spielberg's fingerprints all over it).  Pulled lifeless out of the water, she has a vivid near-death experience before being revived.  When she returns to Paris, Marie cannot shake the experience she had and it starts to affect her work and the relationship with her lover. 

The second story piece is in London and follows identical twin 12-year-olds Marcus and Jason (first time actors Frankie and George McLaren).  They are inseparable brothers who live in meager conditions and deeply care for their mother, despite her being an alcoholic and heroin addict.  They work hard trying to please her and cover for her frequently to keep social services from taking them away to foster care.  However, tragedy strikes when an accident changes things. 

The third and final story arc belongs to Academy Award winner Matt Damon, who plays San Franciscan George Lonnegan.  George used to be a renowned and successful psychic who had websites and books written about him.  He has the gift (a curse in his eyes) of being able to communicate with the dead.  However, he stopped using his ability years ago because he couldn't cope with the things he saw and learned.  He's now a reclusive factory worker who lives in solitude to the comfort of the audiobooks of Charles Dickens.  A welcome spark comes along in his dreary life when he meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard of The Village and Spider-Man 3) at a local night adult education class on Italian cooking.

As Hereafter plays, we are efficiently taken to all three points-of-view, each dealing with death in their own way.  George loathes his ability as a curse and how it never allows him to get close to anyone, especially Melanie (On a side note, Damon and Howard share an amazingly gentle and great scene testing their sense of taste in night class that becomes a remarkably sensuous and scintillating "first date.")  Our London boy seeks answers to what death means after it came so close to him.  Marie commissions herself to research and write a book about the near-death experience she had that remarkably sounds similar to so many others.

To this film reviewer, Clint Eastwood is arguably the best director in the business working today (sorry Spielberg and Scorsese).  Even at the age of 80, he will kick out nearly two films a year when directors half his age take years to make movies.  His resume alone gives him a pass to make films and musings about whatever he wants, even the touchy subject of death showcased in Hereafter.  The film is unequivocally modern Eastwood: slow pace, human frailty, perfect cinematography, and his own composed music (which, by the way, is as beautiful as ever and another level of incredible talent from an already accomplished actor, writer, and director).

Most of all, Eastwood's greatest trait as a filmmaker is pulling incredibly crafted performances out of his actors.  He has directed five actors (Gene Hackman, Sean Penn, Hilary Swank, Tim Robbins, and Morgan Freeman) to acting Oscar wins in his films.  It's no different here in Hereafter with Matt Damon (reteaming with Eastwood after last year's Invictus) turning off both the charm and the Jason Bourne bad-ass routine.  While he's not going to win an Oscar for this, he commands the scenes he's in, even in this deliberately understated role.  Between The Green Zone, this, and the upcoming True Grit remake, he's having quite a year.  The real gem who deserves an Academy Award nomination (possibly in Best Supporting Actress, even though it's a lead role) is Cecile de France.  Watching her persevere, unravel, refocus, and reinvent Marie, all in another language, was outstanding work.  Damon may be the headliner, but she carries the picture.

Hereafter is flawed and not the caliber of Eastwood's Oscar-winning works of Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, but the effort and sound filmmaking is worth watching.  It's Eastwood-slow and probably doesn't need the London story arc, but it offers an interesting look at the afterlife that doesn't shoot for the flashy and symbolic like What Dreams May Come, the shocks of The Sixth Sense, or the science/shocks of Paranormal Activity.  

LESSON #1: THE ONGOING MYSTERY AND INTERPRETATION OF THE AFTERLIFE--  There are dozens of ways the afterlife is interpreted and Hereafter focuses on just one.  Whether it's seeing the "light at the end of the tunnel," being reincarnated, reborn, stuck in limbo, sent to heaven or hell, or having the lights simply go out, the discussion and theorizing of the afterlife fits movie seats as easily as it fits soapboxes, coffee tables, bookshelves, temples, and church pews.

LESSON #2: THE DIFFERENCE AND FINE LINE BETWEEN A GIFT AND A CURSE-- George's ability to connect and communicate with the departed can be looked at as a wondrous and hopeful gift, in being able to connect with those we've lost and possibly prove the notion of life after death.  At the same time, and to George himself, for as wondrous as could be, it's can be a curse to not touch someone without connection and in having to relive the difficulty of death, its circumstances, and its consequences.

LESSON #3: THE TRANSFORMATION THAT COPING BRINGS-- Coming to terms with the drastic changes in one's life (both good and bad) can change a person (also both good and bad).  Whether you are surviving a near-death experience, coping with a loss, or even a change that doesn't have to do with death (Who Moved My Cheese anyone?), how you cope, adapt, and move on can undoubtedly change you.