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"Hereafter" another strong drama from Eastwood

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - Clint Eastwood continues his search for challenging stories that delve into extreme reaches of the human condition in “Hereafter,” a globetrotting inquiry into the nature of the afterlife.

The film also marks an unexpected turn in the screenwriting of Peter Morgan, away from his survey of political personalities in such films as “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon” and into metaphysical speculation. The film never is less than intriguing, right from its tour de force opening sequence, and often full of insights into why people long for answers, sometimes with great urgency.

By now Eastwood has established a reputation for the unexpected, so his admirers -- “fans” no longer seems the right word -- plus anyone curious about the subject matter certainly will line up when Warner Bros. releases the film domestically October 22. The film should do very well in Europe next year as well.

One would expect such subjects as mortality and the afterlife would mean a contemplative, even moody piece. But Morgan has planted a sense of immediacy within these international stories about three people searching for answers. Strange as it sounds, the film reminds a little of old Claude Lelouch movies -- and not just because Marthe Keller, looking wonderful, shows up in one sequence -- because Morgan’s story plays with fate and destiny as people’s paths eventually cross after incidents in different parts of the world send them on a collision course.

A tsunami tears through a tropical beach town, causing a French television news anchor (Cecile de France) to have a near-death experience. An otherwise normal American (Matt Damon) desperately wants to flee his “curse,” a psychic ability to communicate with the dead. Two twin boys in London are inseparable until they are separated by death, leaving the shyer, more dependent brother (Frankie McLaren) desperate to reach beyond the grave for assurance.

Each story has its own subplots and captivating characters. The French woman, something of a celebrity, is in a relationship with her married producer (Thierry Neuvic). The experience has so shaken her that he suggests she take time off to write a political book. She does, but her writing veers off course as she investigates scientists who research the afterlife and the stigma attached to their work.

The psychic aches to get out of the “reading” business, but his brother (Jay Mohr) knows a gold mine when he sees it, and a fledgling relationship with a bright, pretty woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) falls apart because of his unwanted ability.

The twins’ mother (Lyndsey Marshal) is a junkie. Following the death of the “older” brother (George McLaren), social workers and even the mother finally agree that his brother must go into foster care while she rehabs. It couldn’t happen at a worse time for the lad.

All three stories have a sense of urgency: these are people tormented by the inexplicable. Eastwood establishes their stress but never hurries the film. Many absorbing moments dot the movie that luxuriate in situations and details, such as a cooking class where the psychic meets a potential lover or a London Underground sequence where an enigmatic event rescues the brother.

Eastwood’s actors underplay what has potential for hokey melodrama. Indeed, the film nimbly maneuvers through territory few American films enter. Perhaps for good reason: Remember the debacle of “What Dreams May Come?”

Even with all this, the ending is a letdown. It’s too facile, too ... well, Lelouch, as a matter of fact. One wants a film dealing with the ultimate metaphysical issue to end on a more profound note than the finish Morgan comes up with. However, it certainly will give audiences something to debate on the way home. As with “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Million Dollar Baby,” Eastwood has made a movie that shakes up the whole notion of what studio movies can be. A final note: Eastwood’s lilting musical score is among his best.