Clint Eastwood’s new film, Hereafter, tackles a subject that seems to have been emerging in Eastwood’s body of work for some years. When you listen to Eastwood talk about Hereafter, you can readily see this film is a significant departure from his earlier films, though Gran Torino, one of his best and most iconic films, seems to lead you right to the door of Hereafter in its famous closing scene. Josh Hurst, writing for Christianity Today, says: “Eastwood called this his ‘French’ film, which is only partly true on a literal level—about a third of the movie is set in France, and in the French language—but is a reasonable enough way to summarize its comparatively artsy feel, as well as its structure of three initially unrelated but eventually intersecting stories. He's also called this his ‘chick flick,’ which is, again, an exaggeration, but only a slight one; by Eastwood standards, there's very little violence here, and a larger-than-usual role for romance.” Having seen the movie on opening day I have to agree with Hurst’s assessment almost entirely.
But, as was so powerfully seen in Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood (the director) has been obsessed with human mortality for nearly two decades. Eastwood, who turned 80 at his last birthday, seems more prolific as a producer and director than ever. Hurst reflects in the following way: “Much of his career as a filmmaker has been spent toiling in the shadow of death. Is it a natural reaction to his age and his long, storied career—or is he simply drawn to the subject in the same way Scorsese is drawn to the causes and ramifications of violence?” This is not easy to answer based upon what the man says in various articles and television interviews. But most of his films do have the theme of human mortality and death in them at some point. This film could thus be seen as a logical place for this extremely gifted man to be at this point in a long and illustrious career. Hurst right on: “Some of these films [since 1992] are pretty terrific, some not so much; taken together, though, they make for an interesting, running discussion about death and what it means.” Hereafter, like very few modern movies, addresses death and the afterlife throughout. But the end result will be very disappointing to thoughtful Christians. There is one scene, maybe no more than fifteen seconds, in which Jesus is mentioned but it is in a not-too-flattering context that is passed off. Alongside this is a YouTube clip of a Muslim preacher ranting about judgment.
The plot of Hereafter involves three stories that eventually become one in a fairly interesting resolution. One character dies and comes back to life. She has had a vision of the afterlife that transforms her from a secular French television personality into a seeker after an explanation for her “out of body experience.” What makes this interesting is that her French peers are all faithful secularists who think she has totally lost it.
Matt Damon plays the role central to the second story. He is a San Francisco psychic who can communicate with dead spirits by holding the hands of another person. He sees this “gift” as a curse and tries to escape it in various ways. In the third story two young boys, who are twins, live in London with their drunkard/drug addicted mother. This story is so deeply human and heart-moving. One of the boys dies and the other goes looking for evidence that his brother still exists and asks if he has something to tell him from beyond the grave. Eastwood wonderfully weaves his three strands together and uses some moving musical arrangements in the process. Hurst says the film is: “Decidedly irreligious and spiritual only in the vaguest possible terms . . . [and] a rather toothless movie that purports to ponder big issues but has no voice, no vision, and absolutely nothing substantive to say.” Though this is true I would still encourage most thoughtful people to see the film since it will likely become “water cooler” discussion in many contexts.
I agree with Hurst on at least this one level but I think the film does say something most people actually agree on in a time in history when we should have all become secularists by now, or so we are told by “smart” (rational) people. People do believe in an afterlife no matter what the experts tell us. This is especially true in America. But what I agree with Hurst about is that this particular film never deals with serious points of view about life after death. It refuses to say much other than what everyone already says: “Somewhere, somehow, we all exist beyond the grave.” There is, as in most popular culture in America, no serious argument for anything explicit about the role real faith plays in preparing for life after death. Thus this is a decidedly non-religious movie dealing with a very religious topic. In this way it is most unlike Gran Torino, a much, much better film.
The name of God is never invoked once in Hereafter, except for the mention of Jesus by the stereotypical fundamentalist preacher on the Internet and a few words, with no weight, offered by a liberal minister at a hopeless funeral service. Theodicy, which could easily have become a theme in this movie, is entirely avoided. The plot moves on without any serious dealing with a whole series of threads that could have been explored. Hurst concludes, rightly I believe, that, “There is only the unerring inward gaze of a film that refuses to engage spiritual matters with honesty or integrity, instead honing in on the vague, impressionistic platitudes it has clearly accepted from the outset.”
I admit I rather enjoyed seeing the film but left the theater with a sense of lost opportunity for something worthwhile that could have been added to our cultural moment. If all these people believe in life after death why not at least explore some of the ways people have actually understood this belief in the hereafter based upon the teaching of religious traditions?
When I saw the film it was at the first showing on opening day last week, at 1:20 p.m. I appeared to be the youngest person in the theater. (I am quite serious about this.) I watched these so many elderly folks file out and wondered (and even prayed): “What do people see when they watch this kind of film? Are they moved in any way to think about preparing for life after death in a meaningful way?” The answer, in this case, has to be no. What people saw in Hereafter was American cultural religion—everyone will die, life after death is most likely true and what you do on earth has little or nothing to do with it. We who preach the gospel do have our work cut out for us in a culture like this, where religious vestiges remain but real faith is so totally undefined. Millions believe in God, and life after death but so many have no clue what to do to prepare for meeting God and entering the hereafter. We are very spiritual, and even religious in some ways, but we are almost clueless about the “faith that comes by hearing the Word of God.”