Ghosts walk among us, they say.
They haunt our streets, our supermarkets and our homes. They are quiet and dark, restless and hurt. They're searching for peace they cannot find.
Ghosts walk among us, they say.
Not the dead, but the living. They breathe, they speak, they smile. And yet, through grief or sorrow or some mysterious other, they've stopped living in the midst of life, time paused as their souls hunt for a glimmer of light.
Marie is such a ghost.
While shopping for trinkets during a tropical vacation, Marie, a TV journalist, is swept up by a giant wave—a tsunami ripping through town like the hand of death. It pulls her down, debris knocks her out, and she dies. A moment or two later rescuers jolt her back to life. She returns to France, to her job, to her life … only, she can't. She can't shake the visions she had while underwater, the sense of a life after life. And as she tries to figure out what really happened to her, she loses the life she knew—her job, her boyfriend, her celebrity. It's as if she really had died in the tsunami and no one bothered to tell her.
Marcus is such a ghost.
After his twin brother, Jason, is killed in a traffic accident and his mother goes into drug rehab, Marcus, too, seems to disappear. About 10 years old, he doesn't play with his classmates and won't talk with his foster parents—though he does make them put another twin-sized bed in his room. He spends his time haunting London's streets, searching for Jason through every psychic, quasi-religious poser and paranormal pretender he can find.
George is such a ghost.
Stricken with a rare disease in childhood, George underwent a dangerous operation and died several times on the table. Though he technically survived the ordeal, it left him changed. Now, when he touches people, he sees visions of those who have passed on—friends and relatives who share messages with him. Is it a gift, as his brother suggests? Not for George. His ability to touch the next world has made him an alien in this one, and he's unable to turn his strange ability off. He can't have normal relationships—not when he knows the intimate secrets of everyone he touches—and so he spends his evenings alone.
Death touched these three. And because the world fears death, it fears them, too—frightened of what can't be fully understood, scared of the stroke of the Hereafter.
Marie, a longtime journalist, uses her skills to gather stories of near-death experiences and uncover what she calls a "conspiracy:" Science, she argues, refuses to take the idea of life after death seriously, in spite of what she characterizes as the overwhelming evidence suggesting there's something to it. She knows she'll alienate friends and colleagues in her quest, but she pursues the story all the same, and her pursuit of understanding is in some ways admirable.
Marcus' own quest is a little more problematic, but still understandable in context: Marcus and brother Jason were raised, if you could call it that, by a mom addicted to heroin, which meant that the sibling bond was the only reliable one the two boys have. They've taken care of each other and their mother as best they could, and they'd do anything to help her recover. In the end it's a picture they give her of themselves that does the trick. She loves it. And it's the push she needs to try to get herself clean.
After Jason dies, the people around Marcus try to help him as much as they can. His foster parents work thanklessly for nearly a year to give the boy at least a facsimile of a loving home. His social workers are kind and attentive.
The guts of Hereafter are, by definition, spiritual. But director Clint Eastwood doesn't set up his film as a way to confirm or question any particular faith. And God is never explicitly mentioned. Rather, Eastwood turns the story into a contest between "something" and "nothing," concluding that while death may not be the door to heaven, it very well could be the door to … well, the hereafter.
In the United States, where most of George's story takes place, that's a pretty easy sell, and the idea of George being able to communicate with the dead is greeted with more curiosity than skepticism. Folks clamor to have George give them a "reading." But none of the characters who surround him seem to have a good theological grasp on the whole "reaching out to the dead" thing. Billy, for one, insists that George's ability is a "gift," and no one ever mentions the Witch of Endor.
Marie's proudly secular France presents a different spiritual ethos. "When you die, you die," her boyfriend says. "The lights go out. That's it." In the affluent circles in which Marie travels, believing in an afterlife seems almost akin to believing in alien abduction. When she pitches her idea for a book about the hereafter, publishers reject her out of hand—though one eventually connects her with an American publisher. In America, a near-death experience is interesting. In France, it's a scandal. But even there, a hospice doctor bucks the conventional wisdom, telling Marie, "As a scientist and atheist, I was closed to such things [as life after death]," but 25 years working in the hospice has led me to believe there is an afterlife. "The evidence is irrefutable," she says. "I tried."
Great Britain, where Marcus lives, seems somewhere in between. Jason is cremated during a perfunctory five-minute Christian service, where a priest intones, "Death is not final—it is merely the beginning." But it's obvious from the man's tone that that he himself doesn't believe it. The funeral ends and mourners are whisked out of the small church to make way for a group of mourning Sikhs. And when Marcus begins to search for answers, he first goes to YouTube, where he listens to both a Muslim and a Christian talk about what happens after death—neither of them very convincingly.
Finding no satisfaction in online spirituality, Marcus begins to visit charlatan psychics and pseudo scientists, all claiming to have a pipeline to the hereafter. He doesn't believe any of them, but he continues his search nevertheless—perhaps partly spurred by an incident in which it seems as though Jason, from the grave, may have saved Marcus' life.
[Spoiler Warning] Eventually, Marcus crosses paths with George, who gives him a reading. "You wouldn't believe how it is," George, channeling Jason, says. "You can be all things, and all at once." And then Jason announces he wants to leave. Where is he going? After all those readings, "I still don't know," George tells Marcus—again leaving the door open for the audience to interpret the afterlife in any way it sees fit.
George strikes up a friendship with a girl named Melanie during an evening cooking class: Both are clearly interested in each other romantically, and Melanie seems to be trying to prove it by eating tidbits of food in the most sensuous way possible. But things come to an abrupt halt when George reluctantly performs a reading on Melanie and meets up with her dead father—who apologizes for "what he did to you, all that time ago."
Marie and her boyfriend, Didier, vacation together in a tropical locale, and we see Didier wake up in their bed, at the very least shirtless. Marie takes a bath, her body mostly hidden by a veil of bubbles. She walks around in her underwear. She and Didier kiss. George imagines kissing a woman. We see a picture of a woman in a bikini.
The tsunami roars ashore during Hereafter's opening sequence: People run for their lives, get swept away by the water and are crushed by debris. One of the casualties is a little girl running by Marie's side. (We see a fleeting image of her in the afterlife, holding a teddy bear.) Marie herself is nearly pulled under by a car. She's banged around by another one. And we see her momentarily lifeless body floating under the water.
Marcus nearly gets on an underground train in London that, seconds later, is blown to bits in an apparent terrorist attack. We hear the explosion and see fire and wreckage blow out of a tube tunnel. Scenes of the smoky aftermath fill the news channels.
Jason is bullied by a handful of teens, who push and pick on him. He gets away from them, only to run into the middle of the street where he's hit by a delivery van. We see his body fly into another car's windshield and lying motionless on the pavement, blood pooling around it.
Crude or Profane Language
Give or take a slurred interjection or two, we hear two or three f-words and another couple of s-words. God's name is misused at least twice. We also hear "pr‑‑k," "d‑‑k" and the euphemisms "freaking" and "BS"
Drug and Alcohol Content
Jason and Marcus' mother staggers home, pulls a bottle of whiskey out of the fridge and take a swig before passing out on her bed. When the boys try to wake her, we see track marks on her arm. The twins must dispose of empty bottles and other telltale signs of alcohol and drug use when social service officials pay a surprise visit.
She's promised before to get clean, but when she receives that picture from her boys, she seems finally ready to follow through. When Jason dies, she decides she needs to go into a dedicated recovery clinic because, she says, "I'm not strong enough" to kick the habit without help. She promises Marcus, "I won't let you down."
Several characters drink wine.
Clint Eastwood rarely makes junk. His work as a director is always skillful, often profound—even as it is also sometimes deeply troubling. Hereafter is stately but slow—a more than two-hour rumination that mulls just one very important question: What happens after we die?
Eastwood suggests that we can't know, precisely. Yes, there is an afterlife, he posits, but no religion—certainly not Christianity—gets it all right. (The few overt Christians we see in this film—a smooth-talking YouTube evangelist and a jaded, harried priest—offer us little in the way of solace.)
If one takes the Christian concept of the afterlife and examines it on its own, stripped of its larger biblical context, it's easy to see why there'd be skepticism. "What makes the Pearly Gates that much different from Islam's shade-filled garden or, for that matter, the Norse myth about the eternal drinking palace of Valhalla?" a critic might ask. "Every religion, every faith, has its own version of heaven … what makes this one special?" It must strike the atheist, the agnostic or even someone who believes in something—but isn't quite sure what—as a little arrogant. So the Hereafter concept of an afterlife—unfettered by a specific dogma—perhaps satisfies an innate spiritual craving without getting exclusive.
Which makes it a musingly provocative movie—but a very poor theological lesson.