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Clint Eastwood's latest film examines the thin line between life and death.

Hereafter (PG-13)

Life after death is at once the most personal and universal of human mysteries, and Clint Eastwood tackles the subject with tender ferocity in his heartfelt supernatural drama Hereafter.

Eastwood and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland), clearly know they're treading on mighty uncomfortable ground here. From their slam-bang beginning to their ethereal middle to their semi-crowd-pleasing end, the pair are working overtime not to lose their audience. Still, to talk about death, you first have to show people dying, and that makes the film's early scenes pretty tough going.

Then comes the exploration of what comes after that last breath, and while Eastwood clearly comes down on the side of a rather dynamic hereafter, it’s in his trademark restraint that he proves himself once again to be one of our smartest filmmakers.

For nearly as long as there has been a cinema, movies have tried to open our eyes to Western visions of the afterlife. Usually those visions seem to be inspired by paintings: lush, sunset-illuminated landscapes (the fantastical paintings of Albert Bierstadt), twisted scenes of ultra-reality (the nightmare images of Salvador Dalí), pageants of saints and angels, devils and the damned (Michelangelo's Last Judgment). But Eastwood is not falling into that trap. He's determined to examine the afterlife from this side of death's divide — even the story's resident psychic, played with wondrous understatement by Matt Damon, professes to have no idea what the Other Side looks like, even though he has been in conversation with the dead for most of his life.

Hereafter follows three characters — a French journalist (Cécile De France) whose life is changed by a near-death experience; a London boy (Frankie McLaren) who loses the person closest to him; and an American psychic (Damon) who turns his back on his unique ability to contact the dead. The film attempts to wind these three life stories into a single thread of shared human obsession with the afterlife, but it is less than successful: The characters' last-reel encounters seem to be the work of a screenwriter sweating it out. Nevertheless, we are fully invested in the three individual stories. And if the connections among them seem fragile at best, that only serves to highlight Eastwood's premise: that the Hereafter and the Here And Now are not so very far apart, but instead two worlds teeming with compassionate beings, separated only by that filament-thin barrier that separates life from death … and, more significantly, the living from the dead.

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