Perhaps funded and distributed on the promise of Christina Ricci in her skivvies and less, After.Life is weirdly compelling for such a marginal movie. Its premise is a little coy, toying with the expectations of audiences that have had their fill, lately, of stories with characters caught in some strange limbo between living and dying where they work out the psychological issues that hectored them in the real world.
Liam Neeson plays Eliot Deacon, the mortician with a bedside manner who gently assures Ricci’s character, Anna Taylor, when she regains consciousness in his morgue after a car accident, that she is in fact dead. For some reason she doesn’t quite believe him. The old manor that Eliot works out of is big enough, and Anna’s predicament dire enough – she’s been shot up with muscle relaxant that makes it hard for her to take a few steps, let alone fight back against her apparent captor – that I fully expected the film to develop into a tense, showy cat-and-mouse game in which the dead girl, hopefully armed with some kind of lethal close-range weapon, wriggles out of his clutches and tries to figure out a plan to escape and/or plunge a pair of mortician’s scissors deep into his chest.
But After.Life doesn’t really go there. Instead, Anna seems too resigned to her fate as a zombie hostage, despite clear evidence that she’s still sucking wind. Its closest approach to a suspense sequence is a sad bit of cross-cutting between Ricci, fumbling clumsily with a ring of keys that may represent her freedom, and Neeson, drowsily pumping gas at the local Kwik-E-Mart. This business is such a tiresome old suspense-movie chestnut that it could have been played for nice comic effect, but neither director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo nor the forever-dour Neeson evince a bit of humor or self-awareness about this whole affair. Equally disastrous is time spent with the useless Justin Long, revisiting his character from Drag Me to Hell, forever with the same distraught-tragic look plastered across his face. Once this hapless mope starts to suspect that his girlfriend didn’t really die in a car accident, traditional story values would demand that he do something — anything! — to help her take up arms against her oppressor. Instead, he’s completely ineffectual, leaving an increasingly lackadaisical Anna to lounge around in the nude, checking out her fellow corpses and contemplating Eliot’s catty remarks about the lack of courage in her heart.
That’s the film’s big concept — the mortician is a condescending old cuss who gets his jollies by demonstrating how empty his victim’s lives were. Anna’s refusal to exit through the door that Eliot eventually holds wide open for her is a signal of her fundamental cowardice, just as her boyfriend Paul’s unwillingness to stick his neck out for her is an indicator of his own personal failings. But the real character flaws of these two were made apparent in an early scene — another of the bland clichés that Wojtowicz-Vosloo floats before her audience, as if they won’t notice the accumulated dust. They meet for dinner, he with a splashy engagement ring in his pocket, she with a chip on her shoulder, and proceed to talk past each other for all of two or three minutes before Anna storms out into the rainy night. Neeson may be a patronizing douchebag, but at least he’s saving these two from an obviously doomed marriage.
For all its script and story problems, After.Life is hardly incompetent. It was shot on 35mm and is highly watchable, its milky-white setting suggesting the afterlife as a model for the Apple Store. And Wojtowica-Vosloo inserts a couple of dream sequences that have the film threatening to find its nerve. I kept hoping she’d rev it up, but instead she steers glumly into the ditch with a downbeat ending that’s meant, no doubt, as an exhortation to life lived boldly and without caution. It’s ironic that a movie that chastises its characters for not living well enough is itself so dull and circumscribed. Whether or not the girl on the slab has any life left in her, After.Life is a stiff.