November 9, 2010
If the events of Hereafter happened in real life, they would not make a rewarding drama but a tragic story used to show the maliciousness of blind faith, even in things that seem harmless.
A boy, a journalist, and a former psychic all experience what comes after life ends. Taken out of the context of reality, Hereafter is a touching and sad drama with three tender, complex, meaningful love stories. If the characters were transplanted into the real world, however, its story would become less multifaceted and even more tragic.
Longshoreman George Lonegan (Matt Damon) lives with a painful secret: when he touches people, he can sense their dead loved ones around them.
While shopping in a street fair in Sri Lanka, French television journalist Marie LeLay (Cécile de France) becomes overwhelmed by death after her near drowning.
Marcus (Frankie McLaren) and Jason (George McLaren), the young twin sons of a drug-addicted mother, are separated by Jason’s death in a tragic accident that occurs when their mother decides to get clean.
George struggles to stay away from death. Marie is desperate to understand it. Marcus fights to communicate with Jason on the other side.
In Hereafter, George is able to connect with people through touch and receive messages from their deceased loved ones, but he is tortured by his ability. His brother calls it a gift, but George insists it is a curse. In the real world, were he to actually have this ability, it would be unbelievably hard for him to live among other people. If he were schizophrenic and just believed he had these feelings, it would be a tragic situation for him and his family. If he knew he didn’t actually have a connection with the dead but pretended he did, he would be a monster.
Luckily for us, the movie makes a point of showing how different George is from other mediums. There is a smorgasbord of methodologies mediums use to claim they can communicate with the dead: cold reading, educated guessing, listening with microphones, looking at reflections, and so on. Many of these methods are so ridiculous that the child in the movie, Marcus, can see right through them.
In Hereafter, Marcus, who I estimate is somewhere between ten and twelve years old, is especially exploited by post-death communicators. He is so desperate to pierce the veil that he is willing to try anything at any cost. Even though he is smart enough to know when a clairvoyant is feeding him a line of bull, he does not give up trying to communicate with his brother. He believes that if he keeps looking he will find a way to communicate with the other side. The mediums keep him from moving on and embracing his grief. Making it worse, he puts his already tenuous living situation in danger in order to get the money to visit charlatan after soulless charlatan. It is heartbreaking to think that this isn’t just movie mythology; there really are vultures who willingly take advantage of the fragile emotional state of children, like Marcus, and adults sinking in the despair of grief.
Equally sad are the people who take similar near-death experiences as evidence of a universal supernatural truth. Marie is willing to sacrifice everything to validate her near-death experience as true. She circles the globe, collecting “evidence” from experts on the subject. Even as people begin to snub and dismiss her, she pushes through.
Hereafter is not real life, and the consequences of the beliefs, hopes, and skills of these people do not end the way they would if they shared our world. The “gotta have faith” message was well scripted for the world he characters inhabit, but it was lost on me once I left the world created in Hereafter.
Unlike those in Hollywood tales, we have to deal with the finality of death and the high cost of the loss of companionship, love, and comfort that comes with it. If the events of Hereafter happened in real life, they would not make a rewarding drama but a tragic story used to show the maliciousness of blind faith, even in things that seem harmless.
Still, there is something rewarding about the movie if it is kept in the context of itself. Damon’s portrayal of George’s torment is palpable and deeply resonating. Both Marie’s and Marcus’s desperation often left me feeling gutted. Even though I never was brought to tears, my vision often was blurred by a liquid excess, my brows spent most of the movie furrowed, and despite it being contrary of everything I think is true in reality, the ending was relieving and satisfying.
If a skeptic can approach Hereafter as a fantastical look at life after death and the people the dead leave behind, they may leave the movie feeling surprisingly attached to the characters and the outcome. I did.