'Hereafter' (PG-13)

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter is something of a departure for the plainspoken, no-nonsense filmmaker: In this movie, for the first time, Eastwood edges into themes of the mystical and the supernatural, albeit with his trademark mix of melancholy and rue.

Alternating between three storylines in different parts of the world — involving an American psychic, a French TV news reporter and a pair of British twin schoolboys — the movie initially offers no connection between its disparate characters, until fate and circumstance start to reveal a common theme. All the protagonists in Hereafter are preoccupied with the same question — is there life after death? — some coerced by tragedy, others by a near-fatal experience or the death of a loved one.

George (Matt Damon), who can speak to the dead, considers his gift a curse and has turned away from a profitable business as a seer-for-hire, instead shunning human contact and spending his lonely days working as a dockworker. Marie (de France), who almost drowns during a tsunami at the start of the film (a startling, hair-raising sequence that outdoes anything disaster-king Roland Emmerich has ever come up with), cannot stop thinking about the shadowy shapes and corridor of light she witnessed during her few moments on the other side of the living. Brothers Marcus and Jason (the McLarens) are indefatigable in their efforts to keep their junkie mom looking respectable to child welfare agents, until tragedy strikes.

Hereafter, which was written by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) and directed in Eastwood’s usual steady (read: slow) pace, is absorbing in its first half, as the film lays out the particulars of its characters’ lives and makes us wonder where the stories are heading. But eventually, you realize the movie isn’t comprised of much more than premise, greeting-card wisdom and coincidences, and its two hours start to grow long.

The beautiful de France, who proved handy with a chainsaw in the blood-soaked High Tension, is graceful and compelling as the hard-nosed reporter whose view of the world has been irrevocably changed, and the McLaren brothers make their own-screen bond heartbreakingly believable and desperate; only Damon as the weary clairvoyant fails to register anything more than mopeyness.

But Hereafter doesn’t really know what to do with its characters once they’ve been established, other than find a contrived, roundabout way for their lives to intersect, and many knowing smiles and nods are exchanged. Hereafter starts out feeling formidable in scope and theme but ends up awfully small and precious. What could have drawn the usually pragmatic Eastwood to such ephemeral twaddle?

Cast: Matt Damon, Cécile de France, George McLaren, Frankie McLaren, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr.

Director: Clint Eastwood.

Screenwriter: Peter Morgan.

Producers: Clint Eastwood, Kathleen Kennedy, Robert Lorentz.

A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 129 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Oct. 22 at: area theaters.