This might have been a top-notch episode of a television anthology series, but as a feature film it’s out of its league. Though elegantly made, “After.Life” is basically one long tease that in the end doesn’t deliver much beyond further obfuscation.
The premise is a simple one. After a fight with her lawyer boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), schoolteacher Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci) gets in a car crash and awakens in a mortuary, where she’s being prepped for her funeral by undertaker Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson). She protests that she’s still alive; he responds by showing her the death certificate, and explains he’s possessed of a singular ability to converse with the recently departed in order to help them accept their condition. The whole of the picture consists of a tug of war between suggestions that Eliot is telling the truth and indications that he’s a nut job who, for deranged reasons of his own, has been systematically killing his clients.
There’s counterpoint to the debate between Anna’s supposed corpse and Eliot’s preternaturally calm mortician in the grief of guilt-ridden Paul, who grows increasingly suspicious that Anna survived the accident and begins a tearful investigation of his own, much to the distress of his policeman pal (Josh Charles). And in the interest of Anna’s favorite student Jack (Chandler Canterbury), a quiet, reserved child who might well share Eliot’s gift and his peculiar interests. On the outskirts is Anna’s mother Beatrice (Celia Weston), a bitter wheelchair-bound harridan who browbeat her daughter and now blames Paul for her death.
In its favor, in writer-director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s hands the movie maintains a coolly atmospheric mood down to the twisty ending that seems to want to have things in every possible way. (It does, however, serve as a sort of bookend to Long’s fate in the original “Jeepers Creepers.”) That’s largely the result of Neeson’s controlled yet intense performance; it’s almost as though he were taking a welcome rest from all the other movies he’s been making recently. (They seem to appear every other week.) Ricci’s haunted look suits this role, and the red underwear she wears through much of the picture (before going completely au naturel) is very becoming. Long, on the other hand, goes the highly emotional route, and doesn’t seem quite comfortable with it, while Canterbury—who’s presumably supposed to be channeling Haley Joel Osment—remains as inexpressive as he was as Jude Law’s son in “Repo Men.”
“After.Life” is technically quite proficient, especially given what must have been a modest budget. The score by Paul Haslinger doesn’t come on too strong, which is a blessing in this sort of film. And the widescreen cinematography by Anastas N. Michos should hold up pretty well on the tube—which is where the film belongs, unfortunately.