“After.Life” has pretentions towards being a psychological ghost story as well as a mysterious thriller. On some counts director/writer Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s film succeeds, and on other it fails.
Anna (Christina Ricci) is a schoolteacher who is dissatisfied with her life and disconnected from everyone around her. She lives with her mother and simply goes through the motions with her earnest boyfriend Paul (Justin Long). Still, she longs for something more, but abandons the small attempts she makes to break out into something new if met with the slightest resistance. When she dyes her hair red in sharp contrast to her mousy demeanor, Paul’s offhand comment that it “isn’t really you” pushes her right back to where she started. Anna moves through life like an automaton, sleep walking more than living, a fact duly noted by funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson).
Anna’s anticipation of defeat and disappointment at every turn is so pervasive that she jumps to a hasty conclusion and misconstrues Paul’s marriage proposal as him leaving her. She runs away from a romantic dinner into the rain soaked night where she gets in a horrific car accident. Later she wakes up on the slab at Deacon’s funeral home where he informs her that she was killed in the collision. He even has the signed death certificate to prove it. Naturally she doesn’t believe him, but time after time Deacon provides proof.
Is she really dead? That’s the central question of “After.Life”, the question that both Anna and Paul seek to answer. If it is true then is she in hell? Is this purgatory? Does Deacon have a special gift, the ability to communicate with the dead, or is he a psychopathic serial killer? The film intentionally bounces back and forth around the answer as the characters struggle to figure it out for themselves.
“After.Life” is a well-constructed film. Visually it looks great, every frame is intricately set and constructed, and the color scheme is carefully orchestrated and implemented. The music fits with the ominous atmosphere, it meshes with the imagery, as well as augmenting the feel and tone.
The problem is that you’ve seen it before. Comparisons with “The Sixth Sense” are inevitable, but also completely warranted. The feel, tone, atmosphere, whatever you want to call it, is lifted straight from the earlier film. The color scheme I just mentioned is almost exactly the same, from the muted hues of most of the sets to the violent shock of red repeatedly used as a signifier. And like “The Sixth Sense”, and most of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies, while everything is very deliberate and meticulous, it comes across as sterile.
To say that “After.Life” owes an enormous debt to “The Sixth Sense” isn’t to say that it’s bad. The plot is intricate and well executed enough to keep you on the hook, to keep you guessing, and when you get down to it, keeping you engaged throughout is the biggest job a movie has. In that capacity, it is a success.
Though “After.Life” tells a decent story, it is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Watching it you get a definite sense that Wojtowicz-Vosloo is quite pleased with herself. The movie pretends to ask big questions about what it means to be alive, about desire, and if you’re really alive just because you piss and shit and breath. Those are admirable issues to examine, but the problem is that the film doesn’t deal with them in any depth, or in any meaningful way. “The Sixth Sense” Light seems like a solid description. It is good, but isn’t as original or tricky as it pretends to be.
However, for a first film, it is impressive. All the mechanical stuff is there and built on a good foundation. The acting is first-class, as you would expect from this cast. Neeson is as creepy as Deacon needs to be, at times nurturing and understanding, and at times sinister and frightening. Ricci is suitably pasty to play a corpse, and spends half the movie splayed out naked. I have some problems with Long in any role where he is supposed to be a real life grown up, and you’re asked to take him seriously as such. I had the same problem with him in “Drag Me To Hell”, but that’s a minor personal hang up, and he turns in a steadfast performance as the grieving, skeptical boyfriend. (This is also an issue I have with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, though in “Inception” he finally looks like an actual man, a young man, but a man nonetheless.)
From “After.Life” it is apparent that Wojtowicz-Vosloo is a talented filmmaker, and that she has a bright future. There are a couple of moments where she forces the tension where it doesn’t fit, like a scene where Anna frantically tries to escape the funeral home cross cut with Deacon casually pumping gas. It just doesn’t quite work. There is a blood-flecked bobblehead that is cheesy and doesn’t serve any real purpose. For a moment it seems like it will become a continuing visual theme, but it is abandoned and could have been cut without being noticed. And in a dream sequence there is a blatant lift straight from “The Devil’s Backbone”, but hey, if you’re going to steal from any movie it might as well be a really good one.
That said, for every time someone says cryptic things like, “You’re not ready”, or some unexplained gypsy stuff pops up, there is something unexpected and interesting. When Anna, buck naked, stands next to Deacon as he sews a corpse’s mouth shut, it is one of the most visually striking images of the entire film.
“After.Life” didn’t get much of a theatrical release, a limited run in April, but the DVD comes out August 3rd. It comes with a trailer, and a making of featurette that amounts to ten-minutes of Wojtowicz-Vosloo talking as if this is the most ground breaking movie ever made. She certainly has room to be proud of her film, but like I said earlier, it isn’t nearly as important as she makes it out to be. The commentary track transpires in a similar fashion. There is some interesting information, and she has a definite enthusiasm for her movie, but eventually I zoned out and stopped listening.
If you can get past the unnecessary period between the words “After” and “Life” then “After.Life” is an enjoyable film. If you’re looking for life altering insight into the nature of existence, you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you want to watch a decent, eerie, well-acted movie with an engaging story, give it a shot.