After.Life (United States, 2009)April 08, 2010
I admire filmmakers who take chances and defy expectations. Admittedly, that sort of thing doesn't always work, and there are flaws aplenty in After.Life, but the criss-crossing between drama, thriller, and horror is nothing if not arresting. It is also unsettling. In the end, no matter how you look at it, the whole thing doesn't quite come together. There are gaps when the film fails to play by the rules of its own internal logic, and this will frustrate some viewers. Yet the echoes of After.Life linger in the memory long after the impressions of countless safe cookie-cutter productions have faded.
Funeral directors can be odd. I have known a few and they're not like "regular" people, perhaps because the nature of their job forces them to view life and death from a different perspective. In the movies, however, they are often presented as aberrant in the extreme. The strangest cinematic mortician I can recall hails from Lynne Stopkewich's 1996 feature, Kissed, in which the protagonist sexualizes her clients. There's a similiar vibe in After.Life in the way the mortician relates to "his" corpses (although there is no sexual component to the interaction). It's a little creepy to watch Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson) speak gently and patiently to a body he is working on - and even more odd when the corpse of Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci) starts talking back to him.
Anna is (or was) a school teacher who, after a row with her boyfriend, Paul (Justin Long), drives recklessly in bad weather and is involved in a fatal accident. Her relatively intact body (there are head and side wounds) is brought to Deacon's Funeral Home. When she awakens, confused and unable to move, she is quietly informed that she is dead. Eliot explains that he has a gift - he can speak to the newly dead and ease their transition into the afterlife. In order for that to happen, Anna has to accept the reality of her situation - something she is resolutely determined not to do. She is convinced she's still alive, even though abundant evidence points to the opposite. Deacon shows her the death certificate and allows her to view her decaying visage in a mirror. But she stubbornly clings to the hope of rejoining the realm of the living. Meanwhile, Paul, inconsolable in his grief, blames himself for Anna's demise.
After.Life offers a multitude of possibilities to the audience and allows us to pick and choose among them. Is Eliot's story to be taken at face value? Could it be that Anna isn't really dead? Is all this some sort of a dream (there are numerous - too many, in fact - dream sequences)? Is Eliot insane, or is Anna? Director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo offers these and perhaps other options but never provides a firm conclusion (although several late scenes point strongly in one direction). Viewers expecting a clear-cut definition of the relationship between Eliot and Anna, which forms the narrative backbone, aren't going to exit theaters happily.
Although much of the movie's text is dramatic in nature, dealing as it does with the meaning of life and death and how individuals face the latter when they sometimes don't understand the former, the style is predominantly that of a horror/thriller production. The music, editing, and cinematography are better matches for macabre tales of murder and madness than they are for 100 minutes of offbeat philosophical musings. In general, After.Life is well-crafted. The early scenes, which occur before the car accident, present Anna as being stalked by death. She lies passively beneath Paul as he has sex with her; her complexion is wan and she looks almost corpse-like; she has nosebleeds; and, as she walks down a corridor, the lights flicker out behind her. Wojtowicz-Vosloo favors red - and not pale reds but bright scarlets. Not only is Anna's body clothed in crimson for a portion of the film, but there are images of blood-tinted water and garish lipstick. Anna dies her hair a reddish-brown shortly before her demise. Red, of course, is the color of life and intense emotion, and those elements are in play here, although perhaps there is an element of irony in their presentation.
In playing the corpse Anna, Christina Ricci reaches back to her days as Wednesday Addams in the Addams Family movies, although this part is distinctly adult. Anna walks in a slightly awkward way that hints at a growing loss of muscle control and her pale appearance is what one might expect from a zombie, even though it manifests itself while she is still alive. For about half of the film, Ricci is dressed in a slinky red undergarment. For the rest of the time, she's naked. This is easily the most flesh displayed by a mainstream American actress in a long, long time. It's also as non-erotic as is possible - although the main character of Kissed might disagree.
Ultimately, although Ricci gets top billing, this is Liam Neeson's movie. After.Life is more about the mortician and his personal demons than it is about the corpse he's treating or the distraught boyfriend. Neeson's portrayal of the meticulous Eliot is all the more disturbing because the character is so calm at all times. He is menacing in a way that only low-key individuals can be. And perhaps the greatest dread he evokes occurs when he takes on a young apprentice. (Not named Obi-Wan or Anakin.)
I have no insight into why the "dot" appears in the title After.Life. It appears to be an affectation, a means to liven up an otherwise mundane name. Or maybe it's just a way to differentiate it from other movies called After Life (there are a few of them). I recommend the movie to those who are adventuresome and not put off by the subject matter. It's the kind of motion picture that may find favor with those who seek out strange and unusual productions, don't mind a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding the ending, and aren't put off by a few maddening holes of logic. There is an audience for this kind of film, although it may not be a large one.
After.Life (United States, 2009)
Cast: Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long, Chandler Canterbury
Screenplay: Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo and Paul Vosloo & Jakub Korolczuk
Cinematography: Anastas N. Michos
Music: Paul Haslinger
U.S. Distributor: Anchor Bay