The sort of movie for which the critical cliché “tone poem” was invented, Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter evokes an eerie serenity in the face of death. With three interlocking storylines centered on our awareness, perceptions and ultimate acceptance of the afterlife, on what the notion that you start dying the moment you’re born really means, the picture ought to cast a particular, carefully controlled spell.

Yet Eastwood, an adept handler of “meat-and-potatoes” narratives and more naked emotions, fails to transform the precise, melancholic sensibility at the heart of Peter Morgan’s screenplay into an affecting cinematic experience. Long-winded, ponderous and without much in the way of compelling drama, Hereafter sputters across three countries, filled with haunting imagery but never offering the visceral, subtle transcendence of a film by a more adept chronicler of spiritual sensations.

The picture begins with a spectacular set piece, as French reporter Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) suffers a near-death experience when a tsunami wipes out the Pacific island village she’s visiting. Eastwood then cuts between Marie’s story, the lonely, sad existence of San Francisco psychic turned factory worker George Lonegan (Matt Damon) and the similarly downbeat tale of twin British boys (Frankie and George McLaren) coping with an inattentive, alcoholic mom and an unexpected tragedy.

Death, the troubling quandary of morality, looms over each frame of the film, as the protagonists are crippled by their close proximity to it. The narrative unfolds in shades of gloom, with each character compelled by forces behind their control to transform the hereafter into an obsession. They occupy a world of cloudy skies, bland modern spaces and eerie soft lights that offers ample room for contemplation and despair.

There’s no urgency to the story, however, no dynamism to the characters and the journeys undertaken. Instead, the film plods along at a steady pitch, rarely deviating from its still, tepid rendition of lives stuck in stasis. Little happens in a literal sense — the movie’s all about desperate, lonely searching — and the actors fail to offer the sorts of intensely felt performances required to drive such desperation home. It’s all very even-keeled and cool, never too high or low, when the portrait of obsession should challenge. When things threaten to perk up — a character played by Bryce Dallas Howard infuses some life into things — the individual responsible for doing so is callously set aside and forgotten about.

Hereafter needs less of Damon’s wise man babbling, de France’s earnest questioning and McLaren’s wide-eyed seriousness. It needs more feeling, passion, attunement to the wonder and poetry in life’s greatest mystery. Where are the ecstasy and the terror in facing death, head-on? Eastwood’s film should have more of a soul, a greater sense of purpose, anything to make it seem like more than a middling, pretentious exercise, a series of painterly compositions in search of a genuinely felt reason for being.

The Upside: The film boasts some effectively haunting imagery, particularly its rendering of the washed-out visions that it maintains accompanies the onset of death.

The Downside: Clint Eastwood is the wrong sort of director for this kind of movie, and he’s assembled the wrong cast for it.

On the Side: The movie opens wide today, but it’s already taken in $288,882 over a weeklong limited run in six theaters (located in New York, Toronto and L.A.), according to Box Office Mojo.

Grade: C-


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