Anchor Bay // 2009 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // August 20th, 2010
How can you save yourself if you're already dead?
Writer/director Agnieszka Wojitowicz-Vosloo does a very good job of not showing her hand in After.Life, maintaining the mystery all the way to the end of the story and never giving the audience a definitive answer to what has occurred. A moody and atmospheric film, this is a very promising debut from the director.
Anna (Christina Ricci, Pumpkin) has just been in a car accident and, when she awakes, she is lying on a concrete slab. Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson, Rob Roy) stands above her, claiming that he's a mortician and she's dead. She doesn't believe him, claiming that the fact that she can talk to him proves she's still alive. He talks a good game, though, and she starts to believe that maybe she really is passing on. Anna's boyfriend, Paul (Justin Long, Youth in Revolt), is devastated, but when Eliot won't let him see the body Paul becomes skeptical that he's hiding something. Paul won't be deterred, but can he prove Eliot is up to something before he puts Anna in the ground?
Even though there isn't a whole lot going on with the plot of After.Life, it is just elusive enough to keep you happily wondering the entire time. This is a stylish, creepy debut film from Agnieszka Wojitowicz-Vosloo, who deepens the sparse storytelling with strong pacing and judiciously meted out clues to the mystery. She gives us two options. Each side gives its share of supporting evidence, but they play alongside each other smoothly enough to keep the audience guessing.
If we're to believe Eliot, he has a gift that allows him to talk to dead people. He uses this gift to ease the recently departed into the afterlife, but they are generally resistant to his kind services. He makes them look beautiful, and very much alive, for their final viewing, but his subjects don't appreciate what he does for them. As he prepares them for death, he explains their predicament and tries to acclimate them to the idea that, no matter how conscious they feel, they are on their way to the other side. Eliot does what he can to make him feel better about their passing, but there's little he can do if they don't accept it.
The trouble is that the dead makes a pretty good case for their existential status. They speak coherently while explaining to Eliot why they believe they're alive. They feel very much alive, for one, but they have harder evidence, as well, like their breath on a mirror and their ability to grab and wield knives. Eliot remains unconvinced, though, and continues with his work, injecting them full of his special serum that staves off rigor mortis. Eliot has been able to convince each of these souls of their fate, but Anna believes in herself than a little more than they normally do, and she's willing to fight to prove it.
This mental battle between Anna and Eliot would be meaningless, however, without an outside party to give us a baseline reality. Paul grieves the loss of Anna, but just as much, he grieves the circumstances under which she died. He was a hair's breadth away from asking her to marry him, when she stormed out and wrecked her car. Deep down, he wants to think that she is still alive so that he can still ask her. At the very least, he wants to see Anna's body to gain some closure, but the resistance he faces convinces Paul that Eliot is hiding something and, hoping to find Anna alive, does whatever he can to get inside the mortuary.
Despite its oddly punctuated title, After.Life is a strong film with style to burn. Most of the action takes place in a single examination room, but Wojitowicz-Vosloo does a really good job of varying the lighting and the angles to make the room seem larger and stranger than it is. The strong score from Paul Haslinger, stylish cinematography by Anastas Michos, and the director's cold, creepy style accentuates the ideas she presents about grief. The living grieve the dead and the dead grieve their former lives. It makes for a fairly dour thriller, but one I enjoyed a good deal. It's a pretty film that establishes its tone and sticks to it.
The performances from this shockingly famous cast, too, are very consistent with the film's mood. Eliot sits right on the line between calm and creepy, but Liam Neeson never overplays the character. His restraint helps to give the role some credibility and shadows the character's true intentions. Christina Ricci may play much of the film lying on a slab, but she does exactly what the role requires. She is blank, a dead soul even before the crash. She has to play both grieving corpse and escaping victim. It's a tough balancing act, but she is consistently believable, if not always likable. Justin Long plays an adequate boyfriend, but doesn't do a whole lot. The character isn't terribly instrumental in the way the story plays out, but his presence is necessary.
Anchor Bay's release of After.Life is quite good all the way around. The image is shot in a very wide ratio, and looks very strong throughout. In some of the darker scenes, there's a little bit of blocking, but it's rare and never distracting. Generally, it's nice and clear, with good contrast between the muted blue-grays and shocking reds that almost exclusively make up the color palette. The sound mix is equally strong, with good separation in all channels. It isn't the most dynamic sound design you'll ever hear, but the surround channels are used reasonably well and the dialog is always clear. For extras, we have a brief, standard-issue making of featurette and a strong commentary with Wojitowicz-Vosloo. She knows what she was looking to achieve with After.Life and mostly succeeds with what she set out to do. A solid release from Anchor Bay that does the film justice.
After.Life is moody with a lot of style and a little substance to go along with it. How Wojitowicz-Vosloo was able to secure such a cast is a mystery to me, but they add a level of professionalism that could hardly be expected from a film of this level. It is an impressive debut that Wojitowicz-Vosloo should be proud of; I certainly hope to see more from this director.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R