Dirty Harry Callahan would have taken one long, hard, squinty look at "Hereafter," curled his mouth into a grimace of utter incomprehension, and muttered, "You're not making my day." The afterlife, after all, wasn't a place Harry seemed to think a lot about, except as a destination for those on the business end of his .44 Magnum.
But Harry was then. "Hereafter" — Clint Eastwood's 31st feature as a director, a story about clairvoyance and spirituality — is most definitely now. The movie, which opens Friday, is a departure for Eastwood. But it makes a certain amount of sense, given how closely the course of Eastwood's career as a director has mirrored the man's maturation as a progressively reflective and morally generous artist.
While his early movies were synonymous with violence and law-and-order-style moral indignation — the very qualities that made "High Plains Drifter," "Sudden Impact," "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "Pale Rider" such guilty pleasures — the movies that will more likely comprise his lasting legacy decidedly lean the other way.
They include "Unforgiven" (1992), which won him his first Academy Award as best director (and for best picture) and was, for all the gunplay, a renunciation of violence, a revisionist Western in every sense. "Million Dollar Baby" (2004) flipped the trademark Eastwood machismo on its head, with a tale of a woman boxer (Hilary Swank) and an old-style trainer who gets an education in gender equality. It, too, won multiple Oscars, for the director, the picture, Swank and best supporting actor Morgan Freeman.
So the idea that Eastwood would be contemplating mortality midway through his 80th year, and doing it on screen, isn't a surprise at all.
Like Eastwood regular Freeman, with whom he starred in 2009's "Invictus," Matt Damon has returned to the director's fold in "Hereafter." In it, he plays George Lonegan, who is "cursed" with the ability to communicate with those who've departed for the Great Beyond. While his more craven brother (Jay Mohr) encourages George to make money with his gift, George wants to put it all behind him. But like it or not, he can't escape his destiny, or the needs of grieving people with whom he comes in contact.
"I just imagined George as someone with a really rich inner life, but who was just achingly lonely," Damon said in a recent interview. "But that's all the stuff Peter did in the script. And having worked with Clint, I know how closely he adheres to the script, so I just sort of treated it like a play and showed up ready to go."
"Peter" is Peter Morgan, whose screenplays for "The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland," "Frost/Nixon" and "The Damned United" have made him one of the more in-demand screenwriters in the business. It was Morgan's story, Damon said, that got Eastwood intrigued.
"The script was really so well put together and so well-conceived, it really did a lot of my work for me," the actor said. "And yeah, it's certainly different from anything Clint's done, but I think at his level he just responds to scripts he really likes. And he's just so versatile he can really do anything. He just likes to tell stories, and this is a really good story."