I've had many a conversation over a beer, or glass of wine, about how humankind's knowledge of its own mortality is pretty much the root cause of all of our anxieties, aggressions and troubles. The lurking recognition of a finite period of time in which to luxuriate, however much we try to cram that deeper into the recesses of our minds, warps our thinking, and leads to fitful acting out or otherwise perverted rationalizations. After all, who doesn't want more of life, just on their own terms?
Well, some folks, of course. Life is hard, and psychological thriller After.Life, written and directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, centers on someone for whom it might just not be worth it anymore, no matter the recent trajectory. In telling the story of a young woman caught up between life and death, it assays in intriguing fashion a unique viewpoint — the forlorn depressive — not frequently accorded much front-and-center screen time.
Elementary school teacher Anna Jordan (Christina Ricci) has suffered through plenty in her life, some of which is spelled out and some of which is only hinted at. She's built up a wall around herself, though, that much is evident — even though she has a boyfriend, Paul Coleman (Justin Long), who clearly loves her, and wants to take their relationship to the next level. An argument at dinner one night leads to a car accident, after which Anna wakes up to find herself on the preparatory table of local funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson). He calmly tells her she's dead, and that her funeral is in three days time. At first Anna doesn't believe him. Does Eliot truly have the gift to talk to the dead and help them transition to the afterlife? Or is he concealing a more sinister secret? As time passes and her funeral service looms, Anna becomes resigned to passing on into whatever realm awaits her, but Paul launches his own investigation, unconvinced of her death.
After.Life, Wojtowicz-Vosloo's feature debut, has a quiet, unfussy sense of cool menace, in addition to low-fi style to burn, told as it is in claustrophobic fashion in a muted palette of greys and blues, with Anna's blood red slip purposefully serving as a visual signifier of her predicament. (The filmmaker's choice of end credit music, Radiohead's haunting "Exit Music for a Film," further underscores her arthouse inclinations, and clear preference for emotional murkiness.) For most of its running time, this dance of tenuous reality works. At a certain point, however, the grip of its hold starts to loosen, mainly the result of a narrative strand involving a student of Anna's, which feels either like a wholesale miscalculation or fumbled execution (take your pick). Unarguably, though, after so trading on ambiguity in a facile manner, the movie in its last six minutes tacks on one too many appended twists, aiming for a more corporeal and "complete," forward-leaning payoff that just isn't necessary.
If Ricci isn't afforded quite enough meaty dialogue to fully color her character and take the film's mopey doom and gloom to truly dizzying heights, the acting here is still engaging, and in particular some of the scenes involving Neeson's character holding forth on death have an eerie quality, given the still-recent passing of his wife, Natasha Richardson. At the very least After.Life deserves points for the atypical nature of its effort. If Wojtowicz-Vosloo doesn't fully follow her instincts, but instead seemingly yields to her idea of what an air-quote commercial take on such subject matter would be, well... it's hardly the most venal of filmmaking sins.
After.Life comes to Blu-ray presented in 1080p, in 2.40:1 widescreen, with Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound and PCM 5.1 audio tracks, as well as optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Its supplemental features, in addition to its own preview and trailers for forthcoming DVD releases of Spartacus and The Disappearance of Alice Creed, consist of an audio commentary track with Wojtowicz-Vosloo and a fairly short making-of featurette in which she is also the chief figure. Both are heavy with spoilers, and in the latter, somewhat surprisingly, the filmmaker actually addresses her work's ambiguity, answering outright the question of Anna and Eliot's respective states, and — not unlike Richard Kelly's deflating Donnie Darko audio commentary track — taking some of the punch out of her work in the process. To purchase the Blu-ray via Amazon, click here. If DVD is your thing, meanwhile, click here. B (Movie) C+ (Disc)