Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"After.Life" (2009)

Starring Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson and Justin Long
Written by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, Paul Vosloo and Jakub Korolczuk
Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo

Christina Ricci stars as Anna Taylor, a school teacher who, after a fight with her boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), gets into a vicious car accident.  She awakens the next day, immobile, on a table in a funeral home owned by Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson).  Deacon tells her that she's dead, and shows her a death certificate to prove it.  Anna can't move, she can't even feel anything.  Is she really dead?  Does Deacon have the ability to converse with the recently deceased?  Or is he just a dangerous killer, intent on burying Anna alive?

These are the questions posed by the premise of "After.Life".  Paul attempts to see Anna's body, but is held at bay by Deacon, who won't allow anyone but family to view her corpse.  Anna, meanwhile, is locked in a room, trying to convince Deacon that she's still alive, or to find a way out.  Deacon attempts to convince Anna that she's dead, and that she must leave her life behind and move on before she's buried - where no one will be able to hear her or talk with her.  

As time grows short with Anna's funeral approaching, she becomes weaker and weaker.  She begins to face her life and her fears and her regrets.  The film explores the worth and the value of a human life, not just in the physical aspect of being alive, but in whether or not human beings actually live their lives, or sleepwalk through them.  What did Anna want out of her life?  What would she do if she had another chance?

"After.Life" has a wonderful setup, and a really intriguing premise, but it wastes time doing things that don't feel entirely necessary or natural to the plot.  We're obviously meant to question whether or not Anna is still alive, yet the film bogs itself down with some rather standard Hollywood horror tropes, attempting to scare us, rather than simply let the horror come out of that incredibly disturbing premise.  When the film isn't doing haunting dream sequences, it's quite enthralling.  There are several truly disturbing sequences, and the dialogue is well-crafted to explore the idea of our primal fears of death. 

Neeson is a great performer.  He straddles the line between creepy and threatening and simply being weird, a world-weary man with a gift he doesn't seem to want.  He often alludes to the frustrating nature of talking with the recently deceased, snarling, "You people..." whenever they demand proof or beg him for their lives.

Unfortunately, the Anna character is a bit harder to attach to.  Revelations late in the picture reveal to us why she acts the way she does earlier in the film, but until those come along to make us say, "ohhhh I get it!" she feels distant and a bit cold.  Of course, you can say that this is a conscious choice since we're meant to consider whether or not Anna is really alive, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow as a viewer, trapping us in a sort of filmic Catch-22.  Still, Ricci makes it work when she has to, and she isn't afraid to spend a large chunk of the movie in the nude, either. 

Justin Long is hard to take seriously as a dramatic performer, considering his history as "I'm a Mac" and other comedic roles.  He does well enough, so perhaps the onus is on me to give him that benefit of the doubt instead of making him work harder for it. 

"After.Life" is a thought-provoking horror film.  It may not be the kind of film that will become any kind of classic, but it is well made and entertaining.  The performers all sell their roles well enough, especially Neeson.  If only it didn't occasionally stumble with a few scare sequences that feel out of place amongst all the psychological angst of the rest of the film, then this would be a much more atmospheric and disturbing piece.