It wasn't until I was actually watching After.Life that I realized I was watching it entirely on the basis of the three main stars (Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, and Justin Long). It dawned on me as the plot started rolling that I'd walked into the film with no understanding of what the story was, and in that light, I found the movie to be relatively interesting and unpredictable.
Neeson plays Eliot Deacon, a funeral home director/mortician, and Ricci plays a woman named Anna, who wakes up on Deacon's prep table after an emotional fight with her boyfriend Paul (Long). Deacon claims he has a special gift, a gift that allows him to speak to people as their souls pass into the afterlife, and that Anna is his most recent subject. According to him, she was in a car accident, and he will be preparing her body for her funeral in a few days, but is he telling the truth? Locked in the basement of Deacon's funeral home, Anna has no frame of reference, but she can walk, talk, and breathe. Desperate to escape, she plots ways of getting out of the room and contacting Paul, while time ticks away.
Using this concept, writer/director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo plays with the audience's expectations, carefully doling out evidence for either possibility. Admittedly, the movie ends up strongly suggesting one of the two truths, but for whatever reason, the film still felt ambiguous to me when everything is said and done. Some people won't be able to make that leap, but to me it felt like it was still in the audience's hands to take or leave the movie's chosen explanation. Wojtowicz-Vosloo's direction is hit and miss; it's intriguing to see Eliot speaking to bodies that do not respond (is Anna only able to see and interact with Eliot on a one-on-one basis, or is it proof Eliot is faking?), but it's disappointing that she resorts to a confusing trick when Anna looks in an upstairs mirror (the only clue that's hard to reconcile with the rest of the film).
Another surprising aspect of After.Life Justin Long's aptitude for the film's dramatic material. While the guy can't convince me he's ever smoked a cigarette or that he'd fit in as a business-class lawyer, his emotional investment is solid. He hits solid notes an early scene where Anna's mother (Celia Weston) informs Paul that Anna is dead, and a later one in the hallway of a school where his character crosses a line. Long is at the mercy of the script, and is forced to do some silly things (the worst being a ridiculous dream sequence), but for the most part he really sells Paul's collapse in the wake of losing Anna. Ricci is less surprising, but also effective. I liked her delicate, off-kilter read on Anna. She slinks around the funeral home slightly off-balance, as if not all of her muscles are working, and has a passive yet palpable fascination in her conversations with Eliot. Of the three leads, Neeson gives the least compelling performance, but a middle-of-the-road Liam Neeson performance is better than most actors giving it their all.
Wojtowicz-Vosloo does stumble in a few areas. The black eyeliner and pale skin briefly had me worried this would be a movie for 13-year-old Evanescence fans (sorry, 13-year-old Evanescence Fans), and there are some editing tricks that just don't work (you cannot make me believe it takes Christina Ricci as long to find one key on a key ring as it does for Liam Neeson to leave, go to a gas station, fill up, pay, and speed back). There's also at least one or two completely baffling stylistic touches, like a ray of light emanating from a wrecked vehicle (probably meant to look like lens flare, but is just noticeably fake). Lastly, the use of CG in two key effects is extremely distracting, although that's more of a budget issue than anything.
Too many movies these days are unwilling to be more than one thing, unwilling to play with the audience's expectations or understanding of what's happening. The film isn't screaming out to me as something I'd be likely to rewatch, but at the very least, After.Life is actively different and mysterious. Is it horror? Science fiction? Drama? Wojtowicz-Vosloo never settles completely into any of these pegs, and I both appreciated that effort and didn't mind the various developments the story takes. The film probably won't make any year-end lists, but for what it's worth, I thought it was an interesting exploration of an original premise (original to me, anyway), with three actors giving solid performances.
Anchor Bay's artwork for After.Life uses cheesy PhotoShop effects to play up the movie's stars. For some reason, the whole thing is bathed in a weird gray color that isn't as effective as the original poster's plain old red, black, and white. There is a foil slipcover over the standard case, both with identical artwork, and there is no insert inside the ECO-BOX case.
The Video, and Audio
The movie is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, and weighing the positives vs. the negative here is going to be a toss-up for the viewer. Colors, black levels, and detail are all pretty strong for a modern movie, but much of the film takes place in the dark, and the screen crawls and buzzes with mosquito noise during any of those scenes. Many viewers aren't attuned to those kinds of things, so for them the transfer will be satisfactory, but anyone else might want to give the disc a rent before purchasing or consider the Blu-Ray version as a potential alternative (although, I haven't seen that disc).
Dolby Digital 5.1 is just fine. I hate saying that all 5.1 tracks are fine, but most modern movies don't seem to utilize the surround aspect of the technology very strongly and there's not much to say about them beyond that they're crackle-free and reasonably balanced. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
The disc includes an audio commentary and a short making-of featurette (7:58), both with Wojtowicz-Vosloo. It's somewhat disconcerting that she reveals her true intention in both tracks, because I feel as if that cheapens the movie, but I guess the clues are all there. Both are relatively engaging and there are no major gaps on her commentary, but I imagine most people will be more satisfied with the brief clip.
Trailers for The Disappearance of Alice Creed and "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" play automatically when you put the disc in. The original theatrical trailer for After.Life is also included under the special features menu.
After.Life is not for everyone, and maybe I was just in the right mood for it, but it's a competently made, interesting little movie. Rent it if you think it sounds intriguing.
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