“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God,
believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are
many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I
have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come
again and will take you to myself, so that where I
am, there you may be also.
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John 20:29
Clint Eastwood, who can always be counted on to deliver a good film, tackles a very different topic in his latest, that of the question of the possibility of life after death. That is but one way to look at his film. Another might be that he is dealing with what some philosophers call our basic fear, the fear of death. Death is such a mystery, beyond our experience and understanding, and thus to be feared. Directing a script by Peter Morgan (writer of Frost/Nixon and The Queen), Mr. Eastwood has given us a non-religious meditation on death and its aftermath that could result in some great discussions.
There are three stories of people confronting death in the film, stories that converge only at the end. The three persons are a French TV journalist, an American psychic medium, and a little British boy mourning the death of his twin brother.
Marie Lellay (Cecile De France) is the journalist on vacation in Thailand with her lover Didier (Thierry Neuvic), who is also the director of her television interview program. When she leaves their hotel to buy a gift to take back to his son, she is caught by a huge tsunami tidal wave that sweeps over thousands of fleeing villagers. Submerged and tossed about, she drowns and sees luminous figures. Then they are gone as two rescuers use CPR to bring her back. This experience so haunts her that when she returns to Paris she cannot focus on her work. She accepts Didier’s suggestion that she take time off and work on the book she has long wanted to write. A publisher agrees to her proposal to write about a former French politician, but she cannot follow through on it, turning instead to her obsession with learning more about death and its aftermath.
The second person is George (Matt Damon), a genuine psychic who wants to give up his practice of communicating with his client’s dead relatives. This has become so painful for him that he disagrees with his brother Billy (Jay Mohr) about his ability being a “gift,” declaring that for him it is a curse. Closing his practice, he enrolls in a French cooking course and listens to CDs of Derek Jacobi reading the works of Charles Dickens. He gives in a couple of times to pleas to contact a deceased relative, but each incident ends unsatisfactorily.
The third person is London schoolboy Marcus (Frankie McLaren), drawn closer to his twin brother Jason because their mother Jackie (Lyndsey Marshal) is an addled drug addict, for whom they frequently have to help cover up her neglect and addiction whenever a social worker comes around checking on her. Then Jason, running from some street thugs, is hit by a truck and dies. Taken away to live in a foster home, Marcus becomes obsessed with communicating with his brother. He steals some money and seeks out psychics and religious figures, all of whom disappoint him. While Googling, he discovers George’s old website, thus becoming interested in him.
Meanwhile Marie meets for lunch with her lover and shares her interest in life after death. When asked if he believes in it, Didier says that there is only darkness. If there were life after death, someone would have proved it by now, he states. Discovering that he has gone to bed with the woman who had replaced her on the news show, Marie ends their affair. She travels to Switzerland to visit Dr. Rousseau (Marthe Keller), who runs a hospice. The doctor, once a skeptic, has witnessed so many episodes of her patients experience with death and the beyond that she urges Marie to write a book that will convince the scientific community to accept that there is something beyond this life. Marie leaves, equipped with boxes of studies and testimonials of near death experiences.
The convergence of the three stories takes place at the London Book Fair. Marie, her book now published and selling well, is there to speak and sign copies of her book, entitled Hereafter. George has come to London, apparently on a Charles Dickens tour, probably because the famous author had been very interested in the supernatural. He is drawn to the Fair by Derek Jacobi reading from Dickens’ Little Dorrit. He stops at Marie’s booth because of its subject. When he hands her a copy to sign their hands touch, and he has a sudden vision of her and the tsunami, thus realizing that her book must be true. Marcus, present at the Book Fair with his foster parents and social worker, asks to be able to look around while the adults meet the person they are looking for. At Marie’s booth he spots and recognizes George. Annoyed when the boy calls out to him, George hastens back to his hotel, refusing to answer the child. Marcus trails after him and stands looking up at George’s window even after nightfall.
The subsequent events bring all three stories to an appropriate and satisfying ending. Director Eastwood, while giving credence to the near-death experiences, does not take a position on what goes on after death. There are no flowering fields or sylvan landscapes such as those in Winter Bones or What Dreams May Come, just Marie’s brief glimpse of blurry figures illuminated by a bright light. He leaves it to the reader to speculate about what lies beyond, some of whom, I am sure, will come away as unbelieving as ever—and yet maybe at least giving some thought at least to mortality and death, the two being so often shunned by many people in their daily conversations. The affirmation that we need not be afraid of death will be reassuring to people of faith, though we have something far more powerful than a movie to banish fear, the Scriptures containing the words of our Lord on the subject. I have noticed that some viewers and critics have called the film slow moving and uninteresting, and compared to the fast-paced Red, it is; and yet long after Red is replaced in our minds by a hundred similar mindless thrillers, Clint Eastwood’s film will be resonating in my memory.
1. What other films on death and belief in the afterlife have you seen? How does this one differ? Marie sees spectral images of people during her near death experience, but anything else comparable to What Dreams May Come or Winter Bones?
2. Why does George regard his psychic ability as a curse rather than a gift? Were you to possess such a gift, what complications or burdens might this impart to your life? When he closes his practice might he be accused of burying his gift? What burdens apparently did Jesus’ divine powers impose on him? (Scan one of the gospels and note how often he told someone whom he cured not to tell anyone.)
3. If you had gone through an experience like Marie’s, how do you think it might affect your life?
4. What do you believe about life after death? Didier expresses the skepticism of many of today’s rationalistic cultural elite. Have you talked about this with friends, and if so, what do they seem to believe? Note that when he says that there has no one has produced any proof of life after death, Marie makes no mention of the claim that one man has returned to show us that there is. What does this reveal about the secularization of French (and modern) culture?
5. Marcus in his search for answers also rejects the clergyman’s assurance that there is nothing to fear. How might he have been more persuasive? How is what theologians call “apologetics” important when reaching out to the non-churched?
6. Do you agree with those who state that the fear of death is the root of all our fears? How do you see this manifest in our society? With a concordance check out “fear” in the Bible and note how often someone is told, “Fear not…” 7. Do you think that Clint Eastwood’s age might have had something to do with his choosing to direct the film? How often have you seen among those beyond retirement age willing and interested in contemplating mortality and eternity?