|Like last year’s Orphan, Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s directorial debut After.Life is a twisty horror-thriller that banks heavily on the audience’s tendency to bite right into a genre cliché and then willingly question that cliché. The difference, though, is that Orphan’s eventual revelation was genuinely shocking because it had played the archetypes and familiar tropes so well, while After.Life purposefully undercuts its supernatural presumptions from the get-go, making us wonder from very early on what exactly it is that we’re watching.|
The crux of the story is that a young woman named Anna Taylor (Chrisina Ricci) gets into a car accident and ends up on the slab in a funeral home run by the quiet and meticulous mortician Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), at which time she opens her eyes and insists that she is not dead. Deacon informs her that she is, in fact, quite dead, shows her her own death certificate, and then proceeds to explain that he has the special gift of being able to converse with those who are caught between life and death. Everyone else sees her as an inanimate corpse, but in his eyes and her own she speaks and breathes and moves. His role is to help her let go of life and accept death, something that she adamantly protests. But, as Deacon says with the weary exasperation of someone who has dealt with the same difficulties over and over again, “You all say that.”
After.Life, which trades in the same burnished cinematography and grave, hushed atmosphere that have come to define the thoughtful horror film since The Sixth Sense (1999), takes place over three days as Deacon prepares Anna’s body and she slowly comes to terms with her loss of life. Neeson imbues Deacon with his unique air of gravity and decency, but also the flashes of anger and frustration that made him so effect as the vigilante father in Taken (2009). The care with which he performs his duties suggests a man who is either intensely focused and thoughtful or thoroughly psychotic, and Neeson plays the line between them beautifully. Ricci, who spends much of the film simply lying naked in the gothic funeral home’s cavernous preparation room, also has the tricky task of suggesting a woman who was miserable and unfeeling in life, but can’t accept death, a proposition that is emotionally rending for her.
In the film’s opening moments, we see Anna as a depressed, unstable young woman who can’t quite allow herself to be happy even though she has a good job as a school teacher and a lawyer-boyfriend named Paul (Justin Long) who is moving up in the world and wants her to come with him. It is as if she is lost somewhere inside her own head, and everything that happens to her is filtered through a screen of negativity, which is why she misinterprets Paul’s need to “talk” over dinner one evening as her being dumped, when in fact he was about to propose. She angrily drives off, and that is when she gets in the accident, thus closing off any possibility of redemption for herself within the realm of the living. Paul, meanwhile, is torn apart emotionally by her death, and when one of Anna’s students, a death-obsessed loner named Jack (Chandler Canterbury), tells him that he saw her standing in the window of the funeral home, he begins to believe that she is not, in fact, dead, and that Deacon has abducted her.
Of course, careful viewers will have long since been asking themselves that same question, and much of the tension in After.Life hinges on whether or not Anna is actually dead. Is she actually a corpse whose soul is caught between life and death, or is she the victim of an elaborate plot? There are plenty of inconsistencies and questions within that question. For example, if she is truly dead, then is her body actually moving around, or is that just somehow a projection that only Deacon can see? But, if it’s a projection, then why he is worried about keeping the door locked so she can’t escape? If she is, in fact, still alive, how could Deacon have possibly engineered her supposed death and why would he want to?
Wojtowicz-Vosloo and her co-screenwriters Paul Vosloo and Jakub Korolczuk do a good job keeping us guessing, even though that sometimes necessitates overly clichéd scenes that are essentially pointless, such as the one in which Anna is leaving school and the lights in the hallway start inexplicably going out and the door is locked, thus trapping her in a nightmarish darkness--it is the epitome of all style and no substance. They also leave numerous clues throughout the film suggesting an answer to the question of Anna’s true metaphysical state, and the manner in which some of them are dropped is so obvious that you start doubling back on your own assumptions, wondering if perhaps they’re being too obvious about it for a reason. As a puzzlebox thriller, After.Life is designed to make you think and question big ideas, but its primary failing may be that it makes you think too much about what it’s doing, rather than what it’s about, thus drawing you away from the deeper philosophical questions of life and death at its core. It gets trapped in its own mechanics.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (2.5)
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