REVIEW: After.Life [2009]

“I wanted to love … I was too scared”

Finding your father dead on Christmas Day when you’re only ten years old can have quite the effect on a person. Ever since that moment, writer/director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo had feared death, unable to confront what it meant. So, to have this Warsaw-born and NYU/Tisch-educated woman create After.Life as her debut feature film, one shouldn’t be too surprised. In attendance at a screening during Buffalo’s Polish Film Festival, Wojtowicz-Vosloo told her audience that after four years total, 24-hectic days of shooting, and countless hours visiting morgues and funeral parlors, she finally began to wrap her head around the concept enough to find herself being the calm, collected one, able to explain her motivations and tone to the cast and crew following her on the journey. The film is dark, complex, and open-ended in the greatest sense, needing a guide at the helm to steer everything towards its proper conclusion—producers be damned. It’s a personal catharsis and universal story of death existing in order to make life meaningful and something of enough substance to allow big name talent to be as passionate about the vision as its creators.

Death lingers heavily atop Christina Ricci’s Anna Taylor from the beginning. In a story with two sides of interpretation to every single second, one can infer that her dejected attitude, ever-present sense of depression, and bloody nose could be the result of a sick woman, dying in a literal sense, or also one so isolated from the world around her and filled with regret that she carries all the pain around like a blackened cloud above. Trapped in the cold, paranoid, and pessimistic shell she has constructed to ‘protect’ herself from outside forces of presumed disappointment, watching Anna’s panic as the hall lights of her elementary school flicker and extinguish one after another as she runs to the double doors refusing to budge seems appropriate. Darkness lurks around every corner, whether real or imagined, and just as she fears the outcome and all the hardship assumed to precede it, a young student named Jack (Chandler Canterbury) also carries death, only to him its looked upon with fascination and curiosity. His morbid, calculated line delivery and movements both exude a sense of foreboding—or evil even—and portray a misunderstood little boy, unsure of who he is.

We can see a lot of Funeral Director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson) in Jack, just as he does. Here is the character in After.Life with the most ambiguity, able to be seen as a delusional psychopath playing judge and jury as well as an angel of mercy, ushering lost souls towards the beyond that awaits. There is a line towards the end where Neeson explains his curse of being afflicted with the gift of seeing the dead wander aimlessly, dispensing their filth as they sleepwalk through purgatory. It’s a statement that bears multiple connotations from the events occurring before it, making us as viewers question whether he is speaking of ghosts neither here nor there needing his guidance to move on or real human beings living without life, wasting away with regret upon regret as the true gift of existence lies unopened and untouched—the ability to give oneself to another impossible because the pain of rejection is too strong. It is Deacon’s assuredness that all he does is right and necessary which makes us understand the film’s ultimate message of the intrinsic value of loss—used as comparison to know with what to weigh pure joy against, making even a second of good worth the seeming eternity of suffering that came before it.

Wojtowicz-Vosloo wants only to craft a vessel for all who watch to reach their own conclusions, not specifically towards what happens in the film, but to what they have done in their own lives. Mortality is what makes us human and what makes life so precious, the knowledge that all this will end drives us to become who we allow ourselves to be. Some of us use each and every moment to its fullest while others let ego, duty, and expectations takeover, like over-protective and selfish parents (Celia Weston shedding her usual chipper self), high-pressured jobs (Justin Long’s Paul Coleman’s lawyer), or a sense of low self-worth, making happiness a liability because of the inevitable pain always present by its side (Ricci). Only in death are we able to take stock in how we’ve gotten to our final moments, cultivating the revelatory notion that we need more time to make things right. It’s what Neeson’s Deacon hears all the time from the deceased laid out on his embalming tables—misguided anger, longing to be set free, along with pleas for second chances. Unfortunately, as is often the case, we find ourselves fearing life and its unpredictability in the face of finality and no longer having to worry about what comes next.

Central to what makes After.Life so intriguing is its constant mystery of whether Ricci’s character is dead or alive. We are bombarded with verbal and visual clues—admittedly most are a bit too blatant, showing the hand of their author rather than subtly included as reward for perceptive viewers—to make us so sure it’s one or the other before flipping all we thought we knew on its head. There are brilliant flourishes like the ever-changing identity of the vehicle Anna collided with on the road, (Was it a semi-truck or a familiar white van maliciously and deliberately driven by a certain converser with the dead?) as well as top-notch performances from Ricci and Neeson battling on dueling planes of existence, along with a great supporting cast (Long’s grieving boyfriend a noticeably effective turn for the comic actor). Everyone will take from it what he/she will, especially with an ending that shows both sides in full view, forcing you to choose one over the other as real. I personally think those who are dead are dead and Neeson is serving a purpose only he can provide. Joy and love is often right in front of us and if death becomes the only way to release our inhibitions to find it, well, death then becomes its own form of happily ever after.

After.Life 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

And kudos to Wojtowicz-Vosloo for the brilliant use of Radiohead’s Exit Music (For a Film)—for just that purpose.

[1] Christina Ricci stars as Anna Taylor and Liam Neeson stars as Eliot Deacon in Anchor Bay Films’ After.Life (2010)
[2] Christina Ricci stars as Anna Taylor in Anchor Bay Films’ After.Life (2010)
[3] Justin Long stars as Paul and Liam Neeson stars as Eliot Deacon in Anchor Bay Films’ After.Life (2010)

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