There is a film I greatly admire—it's about a female living in a world where love is dead who encounters the fantastic and impossible. The confrontation with the supernatural changes her utterly and ends in her death, but the spectacle is so moving that I could not help but weep even as I wondered if any of the "fantasy" elements of the film were real or just the product of a disordered mind. Hell, you probably loved Pan's Labyrinth, too. Unfortunately, today I am writing about After.Life.
Is After.Life a fantasy/horror film? Depends. Young teacher Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci, often naked in this picture) takes pills, bleeds inexplicably, doesn't enjoy sex or dinner and then dies in a car accident. Or does she?
Chatty undertaker Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson, much better here than he was as Zeus) might be a creepy serial killer, or he may be a man with a "a gift"—what he calls "sympathy for the dead," which includes the ability to speak to the recently deceased. Deacon's role is to challenge his clients to either reclaim their lives or accept the fact that they are dead. Naturally, most people are weak and depraved and ultimately choose death, to his significant disappointment. Either Deacon's a very unusual angel or the whole film is simply a very passive-aggressive installment of the Saw series.
The plot is complicated by Taylor's boyfriend Paul (Justin Long, playing the same damn character he did in Drag Me to Hell), who is about to propose to Anna when one of their tiffs leads to her running off and crashing her car. Maybe she's still alive, he decides. He's barred from seeing the body, he receives a mysterious phone call, the coroner's report seems to have been rushed. Yet nobody believes him; all evidence he sees seems to suggest that Anna is dead, dead, dead. Meanwhile, Anna traipses around Deacon's creepy funeral parlor—often in a little red slip, sometimes utterly naked--and makes half-hearted attempts to escape between inexplicable and CGI-heavy dream sequences. There's also a creepy little kid named Jack and Anna's angry, crippled, mother rounding out our stock horror film characters.
The evidence points to Deacon being a serial killer, except that the film is utterly awash in the uncanny. Every moment is creepy, and none of the characters are quite human. All the light in the film comes from below, and all rooms lock from the inside. Cross-cutting between a gas pump and a key in a lock suggests both sexuality and murder. Anna gets her hair hennaed before the funeral she attends ... later is that the dye coming off her body, or is she being drained of blood? Anna was certainly in a car accident, but nobody actually alive can spend four days after such a crack-up without food or water and experiencing no ill effects other than ennui. Little Jack's mother watches 60-year-old episodes of Beat the Clock and appears to be dead herself. Even the vending machines are stocked with a strange soft drink called "Teb." Anna Taylor's blood-splattered dashboard bobblehead seems to jeer and mock the proceedings as if it understands more than we do. (As an aside, it's a bad idea to have both a bobblehead and Christina Ricci in the same movie; the audience may find it hard to tell the difference between them.)
The screening I attended was a fan event as well as a press screening. After.Life's ambiguity was enough to get a couple arguing during the film. "Yeah, she's definitely dead!" the man said at various points. "Oh, she is not!" his girlfriend would disagree. At one point a third person literally shouted, "Would you PLEASE be quiet, PLEASE?" to them ... or she may have just been reading Raymond Carver stories off her cell phone because the movie was actually pretty boring.
Ultimately, After.Life is a stillbirth. First-time feature director and co-writer Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo simply lacks the cinematic language needed to explore her potentially compelling themes. She's stuck with the lexicon of latter-day horror films: a trembling hand clutching a knife, wide-eyed quiet children, a shrieking ghost-girl in pigtails, a mouthful of maggots, anxiety expressed through bangs falling across a man's forehead, blood swirling down a drain. It's as though half the film were shot simply to create a misleading trailer. (The other half was shot to give celebrity nude Web sites another hundred Ricci screengrabs.)
As we never get to see Anna happy or even a single shot of everyday life as it is actually lived, there's never any reason to go along with the film's exploration of the line between life and death. After.Life is neither sufficiently fantastical to be fantastic nor realistic enough to be horrific. There's a difference between exploring a labyrinth and getting lost in one, and I hope that Wojtowicz-Vosloo can find her way toward fulfilling her obvious promise. We could use an indie Del Toro.