Peter Morgan’s screenplay for Hereafter begins at the end, ends at the beginning, and hopes all the loaded inference of such structural choices will make up for the rambling, thin, and shallow scenes of idle characters in between. The end, after all, is just the beginning, no one literally says, but every passive action that befalls these characters makes sure to drive that point home and then take it out for another spin, just so the movie can do it all again.

And it does so three times, in three different people who are affected in some way or another by death, and that way or another always involves the very real existence of the titular realm past the mortal coil — a shadow world where silhouettes stand still in monochromatic anonymity. It’s a striking bit of imagery from director Clint Eastwood that says nothing specific but insinuates everything.

That’s why Hereafter is so incredibly frustrating. Eastwood empathizes with his subjects, whether they be the psychic who wants to live a normal life in the land of the living, a journalist who wants to uncover the factual truth of an afterlife, a young boy who wants to say good night to his dead twin brother every night before bed, or those specters in the nether world who want to console the loved ones they left behind. He understands their plights and, as such, handles them with compassion and steady shots that hold on the characters as they endure.

Endure they must and repeatedly, as Morgan holds the trio of haunted heroes in a limbo of his own devising. They are stuck in the wanting of custom, clarity, and comfort, never needing it.

The first of the three characters’ stories opens with a tsunami. Marie (Cécile De France), a French television journalist, is on vacation with her lover/producer Didier (Thierry Neuvic) when she strolls to a local street market, only to be washed away by the wave. It’s a harrowing sequence in which the camera stays close to her, and everyday objects become pummeling projectiles. She is knocked unconscious and drowns, rushing into the shadow world. Her survival is pure luck.

In San Francisco, George (Matt Damon) is a retired psychic who has the genuine ability to speak to the dead. His brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), believes George owes it to the world to offer his services, and that he should manage the company and make a fair stipend on the profits. George has been through this argument countless times, has instead decided to work a union job at a factory, and start night classes at culinary school. There he meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who hopes to meet the guy of her dreams.

Finally, in London, are Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), identical twins in London with a drug-addicted mother (Lyndsey Marshal). Already the subject of much scrutiny from social services, Marcus is temporarily taken away to a foster home when his brother dies.

Eastwood intercuts between the characters after extended sequences of their individual stories. The stringent structure of Morgan’s script — a waltz in largo — combined with the lengthy divisions between stories (and the careful pacing within segments) hinders involvement with any of the central characters.

Then there’s the simple fact that none of the characters grow until the final act in which they are inevitably gathered together by fate. George makes the movie’s argument: a life focused on death is no life at all. What’s fascinating about his character above the other two is his unique predicament. He is, by nature, surrounded by death. Touching another person makes a connection to his or her loved ones in the spirit world. When Melanie convinces him to do a reading, he protests that, once they open that door, it will never be the same. How can he avoid it in even a friendly relationship, let alone an intimate one? His brother calls it a gift, while George calls it a curse. The curse is not that people want to know about their loved ones but that he cannot help but to make that connection.

Morgan leaves the dilemma unexplored except in platitudes like the continual debate between the brothers. Instead, the movie returns to Marie and Marcus. She searches for proof and validation, and he tries to buy hope from a group of charlatan clairvoyants. It seems both only serve to emphasize George’s legitimacy, and since they are stuck in their own lives centered on death, they don’t develop.

Hereafter is a massive disappointment. With unmoving characters and a wandering sense of purpose, the result is dramatic stagnation.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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