Willfully Obtuse

It's hard to call 'After.Life' a satisfying experience.

After.Life might leave people arguing once they leave the theater. Normally this is a good thing, a sign that a film has encouraged a level of thought uncommon to most mainstream cinema, or left a few things open to interpretation. But After.Life mostly accomplishes this by being mind-numbingly vague. Coupled with rote thriller filmmaking, it feels like the film just doesn’t know what it wants to be.

After a fight with her boyfriend, Anna (Christina Ricci) gets into a car accident. She wakes up at the funeral home, unable to move below the neck. Funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson) tells her that she has already died, and she is only able to talk to him because he has a special gift. Anna refuses to believe that she’s dead, and sets out to escape the funeral home. But Deacon insists that she must come to accept her fate or spend eternity in suffering. It is left to Anna’s boyfriend Paul (Justin Long) to figure things out, and to maybe save Anna from a fate worse than death.

The mystery at the center of After.Life is whether or not Deacon is for real. The answer ought to be simple: it is either he is truly gifted, and Anna is a ghost, or Anna is alive, and Deacon is playing some sort of sick game with her. Both answers are a little hokey, but either would have been preferable to the ambiguity that the film adheres to. Normally, a film ought to be praised for not providing any easy answers, but this film doesn’t benefit from its wishy-washiness. It holds it back, nothing ever really progressing as every clue is reversed, every action undone.

It leaves the film with little to do throughout its runtime. Much of it can be reduced to a single, repeated conversation. Anna will say that she’s not dead. Deacon will insist that she is. Anna will do something that dead people shouldn’t be able to do. Deacon replies that it’s not proof of her living. And this is repeated several times throughout the film, with nothing ever being resolved. Hidden throughout this spate of conversations is a sprinkling of the twisted Carpe Diem mentality that stands as the backbone of the Saw franchise, but even more halfhearted and inconsequential. Sanitizing cuts make seeing the film in theater even less appealing.

The movie features a few reliable names, but it isn’t a particularly good showcase for them. At this point, Liam Neeson could read a phonebook and make it interesting. Here he mostly acquits himself by avoiding the potential broadness of the character, though it’s really just another permutation of the Liam Neeson gruffness. Justin Long is severely unlikable in this film, and not all of it seems intentional. Christina Ricci is burdened by a character that doesn’t really move much beyond her initial state, and the repetition of the film’s main argument does her performance no favors.

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In the end, it’s hard to call After.Life a satisfying experience. A good mystery leaves just enough room for doubt to set in, but this film gives up all of its space to pointless ambiguity. I suppose it’s trying to clever, but it’s really just being willfully obtuse. Its commitment to vagueness leaves much of the film inert, a single argument reoccurring without result. Perhaps in another context, this could’ve worked, but within the film’s fairly standard thriller framework, it all just seems pretentious and unnecessary.

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