After.Life (superfluous period thrown in at no charge) is the debut feature from Polish born director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, a name for which cut-and-paste was practically invented. A thriller directed by a woman is newsworthy enough, but when her name is Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, it raises hopes for a blood-soaked, allegorical wallow in the dark psychology of post-Cold War Eastern Europe. Instead, Wojtowicz-Vosloo and her screenwriter husband Paul Vosloo have found the intersection of Stephen King Blvd. and J-Horror Ave. But its ticklish premise never develops into anything more than the “is he or isn’t he” parlor game of figuring out whether funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson) can really speak to the dead or if he’s just a twisted killer. Neeson’s austere, meticulous turn is the best reason to see After.Life. He’s cinema’s most soft-spoken, high-toned boogeyman since Anthony Hopkins opened his first can of fava beans. But his name won’t attract older audiences to a film like this, and the movie’s emphasis on tension—as opposed to gore and scares—won’t excite the faithful. Look for the film to come alive on DVD.
As any fan of The Sixth Sense or Jacob’s Ladder can attest, the creep-factor of limbo (the mysterious space between life and death) is pretty ripe. But that’s the easy part. The hard part, at least for After.Life, is using a dead schoolteacher, lying on a slab, to explore the subject’s thematic possibilities. That’s an opportunity not taken full advantage of here. What could have been a chilling therapy session for a woman not appreciative of life is instead an excuse to enjoy Neeson’s terrific performance, and wait for an answer to the movie’s fiendish central question. Actually, there’s another pleasure on offer, which is seeing Ricci topless for major portions of the movie, something she probably acquiesced to because the director is female. Ricci, whose career has been drifting, still looks like a Tim Burton animatronic puppet come to life. But casting her, as opposed to a standard, damsel in distress blonde, was a justifiable move. The festivities begin when Anna crashes her car in a huff after mistakenly believing her boyfriend, Paul (Justin Long, trying hard, but miscast), was about to dump her. She wakes up on a mortuary table as Deacon prepares her body for burial. Quite sure she’s still alive, Anna protests. Deacon delivers the news that she is very dead and he has the Shining-esque ability to talk to the freshly departed and help them on the final leg of their journey to oblivion, be it Heaven, Hell or any theater playing The Bounty Hunter.
Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s visual approach is forceful but hardly unique, with cinematographer Anastas N. Michos contrasting the stark whites of Anna’s apartment and her purgatorial prison with the reds of her dyed hair and sexy slip. But the smash cuts, de rigueur horror imagery and speaker-shredding music push the film into territory it should be above. Especially since nothing suggests the cast is slumming for profit (you may even get an eerie, sad sense that Neeson is using the role to help say goodbye to his wife, the late actress Natasha Richardson). There’s queasy intrigue in watching Deacon produce a death certificate to convince the trapped and drugged Anna that she’s dead (“you’re in denial”, he claims. “You all say the same thing.”). And if someone needs to be convinced they’re dead, Neeson should make the argument. Ever calm, his only measured outbursts come when Anna tries to escape the funeral home basement and he responds like he would to a petulant child. His performance is devilishly teasing. Every clue he’s a psychopathic murderer is counterbalanced by an equally subtle hint that he really can speak to the dead and is merely discharging his ferryman duties. But Neeson’s expert act of modulation papers over the villain’s lack of depth. Deacon’s big point is that most people are dead even when they’re alive. That’s inarguable, but it’s also one of a handful of lame thesis statements that are less convincing than the phony moral high ground taken by the Saw films to justify their violence.
If Anna really is alive her only hope is Paul’s insistence on seeing her body, a request Deacon repeatedly denies. Paul’s investigation, along with Deacon’s training of a young protégé, are the movie’s weakest links. With the endgame of Anna’s funeral service fast approaching, it’s pretty obvious that the small town cop with the small town mustache (Josh Charles) and the guy from the Apple commercials won’t be mounting a very plausible rescue. Of course, nothing in After.Life is plausible, nor is it meant to be. The problem is that without a strong emotional engine, we rely on the scares, which aren’t scary enough. That leaves us with an Oscar nominated actor’s one-night-only performance in a movie that, much like its heroine, is stuck between life and lifelessness.
Distributor: Anchor Bay Films
Cast: Liam Neeson, Christina Ricci and Justin Long
Director: Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo
Screenwriters: Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, Paul Vosloo and Jakub Korolczuk
Producer: Celine Rattray, Brad Michael Gilbert and Bill Perkins
Rating: R for nudity, disturbing images, language and brief sexuality.
Running time: 95 mins.
Release date: April 9 ltd.