Anchor Bay // 2009 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // September 6th, 2010
How can you save yourself if you're already dead?
After.Life is a film about a woman who doesn't know if she is dead or alive. That pretty much summarizes how audiences will feel watching this tepid psychological thriller: cold, lifeless, and uncertain.
After a horrific car crash, Anna (Christina Ricci) wakes up dead, apparently, with her body being tended to by local funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson). Anna is told matter-of-factly that she died, and so sorry about all that and such, but you better get used to it. Stuck in a weird purgatory on the mortuary table, Anna can't bring herself to believe she really died, but the longer she sits there, the more she worries. She tries and fails to accept her death, but can't escape the nagging suspicion that something is horribly wrong.
Meanwhile, Anna's boyfriend Paul (Justin Long) is having just as hard of a time accepting his girlfriend's death. Grief-stricken and maddened by the loss of Anna, he begins to suspect that Eliot is harboring a secret about his girlfriend. Is she still alive? Or has she already begun to pass to the other side?
On paper an ambitious and original thriller,After.Life poses an interesting premise to audiences: What is the definition of dead? Sure, it seems pretty straightforward -- when you're dead, you're dead -- but for the hapless numbers who wander through the doors of Eliot Deacon's funeral home, it gets a bit muddled. "Muddled" is the operative word here. After.Life has some great ideas, but leaves audiences with a dull and lifeless film riddled with poor performances from its cast.
It is hard to pin down exactly what goes wrong with this film, or at what point, but it becomes immediately apparent that there is something fundamentally broken. What should be a subtle, menacing psychological thriller about the introspective nature of death and loss ends up being a muddled and disinterested snooze fest of Christina Ricci sitting naked on a slab in a funeral home, looking bored and disinterested while Justin Long runs around in a constant state of tears. Even Liam Neeson, a man who could turn a diuretics advert into a Shakespearian masterpiece looks pained here, as if unsure how he ended up in this snooze of a film. The execution of this film is so awkward and disjointed that most viewers won't care one iota whether or not Anna is dead or alive -- they'll only be wondering when the film will be over.
In the end, the characters themselves are to blame. Anna, as played by Christina Ricci, is so unpleasant and unlikable as a human being that her so-called death is more schadenfreude than shocking. It is virtually impossible to connect with her on any emotional level or care about her situation. This sinks the whole premise of the film. After.Life wants to be this introspective examination into the nature of death, a kind of Twilight Zone or The Sixth Sense spin on a crisis of mortality. As the audience, we're supposed to revel in the irony of Anna: a drugged, sleepwalking, depressed woman who fails to appreciate how precious her own life is until she ends up dead at a funeral home. Eliot tries to rehabilitate her, to prepare her for her final rest, to help her come to some kind of terms with her own fate. Amusingly, I could care less whether Anna is dead, or being held in a funeral home by a crazy person against her will. That's how much you will dislike the character.
The acting is just terrible. Christina Ricci looks like a real-life porcelain doll, and pretty much acts like one here; stiff, rigid, and lifeless. The biggest tragedy is Neeson -- an actor with such credibility and talent that he should be able to sleepwalk his way through a film like this. Figuratively speaking, of course; the problem is that he actually looks asleep here. He plays Deacon as cold, creepy, and unsympathetic, which pretty much spoils most of the plot twists. You figure out early on that is a Bad Fellow. Amusingly enough, the saving grace here is Justin Long. Distraught and traumatized by the death of his fiancée, at least his character gets to emote something through this snooze fest of a film. He ends up plastered with a confused and tearful grimace that in some circles could constitute dramatic acting.
To the film's credit, After.Life tries hard to put out a quality product on a low budget. Writer/director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, in her Hollywood cinematic debut turns out a visually stylish film, a striking bleakness of composition full of muted tones and harsh fluorescents. As messy and incoherent as the film plot might be, the visuals of the film feel meticulously crafted and well-executed, and it makes the film's esoteric vision and original concept easier to admire. It gets a bit weird at times, though. The fetishism of Ricci done up like a corpse crosses into some uncomfortable areas, with excessive lingering shots on her pale body laid out on a slab in a decidedly erotic fashion. It isn't erotic in the slightest, thank goodness, but almost half of the film is devoted to such weirdness.
With a little bit of reworking, After.Life could have been a decent psychological thriller. The material has potential, and the director has a very nice visual style. Alas, the plot and the acting just don't measure up. In the first act, you have the nagging suspicion that the film doesn't make a lot of sense, that it is failing to obey its own logical rules. By the second act, this becomes extremely obvious. By the third act, you'll be reading a book in another room.
From a technical perspective, Anchor Bay has done a nice job with this Blu-ray presentation. The 1080p transfer is quite striking, clean and crisp with solid black levels. The film has a subdued color palate, manipulated to rob the film of some colors, while emphasizing other saturated tones for effect, like red tones. Detail is very sharp, with no observable edge or noise issues. It is a handsomely cold presentation, well-suited the film's strong visual aesthetics.
In terms of audio, we get an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track, which is predictably atmospheric for a horror film, full of eerie silences and tension. The rear channel is rarely utilized, but adds an unmistakable echo and ambient quality in the funeral home sequences. Bass response is balanced, but on the weak side. We also get a legacy 5.1 Dolby Digital track, which offers up a very similar sonic performance. Dialogue is clear and clean. It is a functional presentation, but nothing groundbreaking here.
Extras are slim, but we get an enthusiastic and solid director's commentary track from co-writer and director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, clearly very excited to have her first film to discuss in great length. We also get an 8-minute making-of featurette, "Delving into the After.Life: The Art of Making a Thriller" and the theatrical trailers.
It is criminal that a film featuring Christina Ricci in almost constant states of nakedness and undress could be this boring and uninteresting. I can't even string words together to express my disappointment here. Just...look, I need some time alone. I have some grieving to do.
On paper, After.Life should be a great thriller, but the end result is so tepid and uninteresting, so unforgivably dull it simply cannot be salvaged. Avoid this one, or rent if you're feeling masochistic.
Dead on arrival.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site