Friday, March 16, 2012

Film Friday: After.Life (2009)

I’d never heard of After.Life until the other day. The film bombed in theaters, making only $3.2 million on a $4.5 million budget, and that’s a shame. This is a fascinating movie and is well worth watching. I can’t call it a great film, but it is an interesting film.

After.Life stars Liam Neeson as Eliot Deacon, the owner of a funeral home, and Christina Ricci as Anna, an unhappy school teacher. After a quick intro where we learn that Ricci and her boyfriend Paul Coleman (Justin Long) don’t really get along, Ricci wakes up on Neeson’s embalming table at the funeral home. She’s had an accident and has been pronounced dead. Neeson’s job is to prepare her for burial. But here’s the thing, she’s pretty sure she’s not dead. Neeson assures that she is. He explains that she had a car accident and was pronounced dead by the coroner at the scene. He shows her the death certificate and the wound on her head. She also suffers from periodic paralysis, which Neeson attributes to rigor mortis. But how can Neeson speak to her if she’s dead? He claims he has a gift which lets him speak to dead people.

The big thing this movie has going for it is mood. The whole film is creepy and you never once doubt the possibility that Ricci could be either dead or alive. And best of all, the film achieves this as a genuine psychological thriller, not a modern horror movie. Indeed, it rarely sinks to cheap scares or gross outs.

Neeson gives a strong performance, as I’ll discuss below. Ricci is quite good as well. Long is weak as the boyfriend who can’t shake the idea that Ricci might be alive, but he’s a sideshow. The real heart of this film lies is the question of whether or not Ricci is really alive or dead. And in that regard, this film is thought provoking. Why do we cling to life? Or do we? What would it take to convince us that we are dead? And how would you prove you wanted to live? I would have preferred a little more depth on the answers provided here, but the film certainly raises the questions well.

Beyond that, there’s nothing I can say without giving you a major spoiler warning. This film’s ambiance comes from trying to understand what is really going on and I’m about to tell you, so don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film.

** Spoiler Alert – I recommend seeing this film before continuing. **

Let’s talk about Neeson. Neeson gives a spectacular performance in this film. About three-quarters of the way through the film, it becomes fairly clear that Ricci is in fact alive and that Neeson is some sort of twisted serial killer. What’s interesting about Neeson’s portrayal up to this point, is that you can absolutely believe both scenarios. On the one hand, he comes across as exactly the kind of respectable man who would be a funeral director. He also plays the idea of the “gift” of being able to speak with the dead perfectly and you never doubt that it’s possible he is telling the truth. At the same time, he shows these moments of intense-but-controlled anger, which give you the sense that he could easily build up enough rage to be a killer.

But even more importantly, he gives a genuinely believable motive. I’ve discussed this before, that bad people rarely think of themselves as evil. To the contrary, they think of themselves as justified or even doing something noble, and that’s the case here. Neeson believes that people who don’t value life don’t deserve to have it. And if you listen closely, you will hear Neeson on several occasions offer Ricci a chance to prove she values life by walking out the door to freedom. This is her trial and she is judging herself, only she doesn’t know it.

This is such a strong motive that it both makes the character instantly credible and it helps you understand his methods. He’s not some standard psycho who tortures people because it gives him pleasure. In his mind, he’s executing people who judge themselves unworthy. His fake-death game is the trial. And interestingly, he seems willing to let himself get caught if the person does in fact walk out the door. That is a fascinating motive and it’s highly believable. Not only does this make his insanity “rational,” but it adds the element of risk which serial killers and gamblers view as such a turn-on. Indeed, this feels like a much greater risk than any other movie serial killer has taken because he puts his fate in the hands of his victims.

The writer was also smart to expose this motive slowly. You start to get a sense for it early and with each passing scene it becomes more clear. This makes for a more fascinating film than those where you have a cliché scene where the otherwise-normal killer suddenly rips off their mask and spews their motive in a melodramatic speech because this film lets you discover the motive as you would in real life -- through small hints.

Now, I’ve said this is an interesting film, not a great film. There are several reasons for that. The story itself is great, as is the struggle between Ricci and Neeson, but Long is a rather poor distraction -- he is a standard, irrational “movie” character. But the bigger problem is that while you watch the film, lots of things don’t make sense. In particular, this seems like a rather impossible way for a serial killer to work. He’s basically relying on people to be injured and then for the coroner to mistakenly declare them dead. That’s a hard bit of disbelief to overcome. But here’s the thing, the film actually answers this, it just doesn’t do it clearly enough that most people will realize what is really going on.

When Ricci has her accident, she is actually forced off the road by a white van, not the truck which Neeson tells her killed her. The white van is the same white van Neeson drives at the end of the film when Long has his accident. What is going on is that Neeson picks a target. He causes them to have an accident. Then, because he’s at the scene, he gives them a shot of Hydronium Bromide, which mimics death and fools the coroner. This explains all of the seeming coincidences, like how he gets his victims. It also explains the coincidence of Jack being Neeson’s son and yet being in Ricci’s class and then getting to know Long -- it’s no coincidence at all, he was sent to target both. If the film had given just a little more hint of this, then I think it would have been better received because, as it is, I suspect most people left the film feeling this was all too coincidental to be real.

I also would have liked to see the film explore a bit more into the question of why Ricci wants to live. This started well, but I think the writer didn’t quite have a solid answer other than “because the plot needs it.” So there is a missed opportunity there.

In any event, the interesting take away from this film is Neeson’s character, who is one of the most convincing serial killers in a long time because he truly seems motivated by a twisted sense of righteousness, rather than the usual “just because I’m evil” attitude most serial killers display. And it’s fascinating to watch him toy with fate by offering to let these people leave and then simultaneously letting them judge themselves. It’s an interesting way for him to wash his hands of his dirty deeds.

There is much here to like and to think about. I definitely recommend this film.

59 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

thanks for the review of this unheralded flick. It sounds like Justin Long was mis-cast horribly. His being in the cast may have caused a bunch of folks (such as myself) to dismiss it out of hand. I'm not surprised about Neesan. He is becoming a younger Gene Hackman; a go to vet who almost never mails it in regardless of script quality.

It does sound like this had loads of potential. I can understand why it struggles a little since I think this kind of story has a tough time keeping everything plausible. It's the kind of short story I might have tackled and can appreciate the difficulties. It might be an interesting comparison to look at this one side by side with Mr. Brooks. Now Neeson is much the superior actor, but it sounds like there are some stylistic comparisons between the two films that would be fun to consider.

Anonymous said...

I saw this. It was an interesting movie. That was my exact word: "interesting." I had some of the same complaint you did about the believability and it wasn't until I thought about it a few minutes that I put it all together. So I think you're right that this would have been stronger if they had explained it better. And like you, I thought the best part was the not knowing. I had no idea if she was alive or not until way late in the film.

-J

DUQ said...

Andrew, I saw this the other night on television and I agree 100% with you. Neeson was great. The movie was creepy as all hell. Long stunk. And I too felt it would have been better if they had given a little more explanation at the end. It does work out, but I had to think about it after the credits started running and until then I kept thinking the whole scheme wouldn't have worked.

DUQ said...

Jed, The comparison to Mr. Brooks is an apt one. At first, Neeson comes across as just the nicest guy with the perfect mentality to be a funeral home director. But he shows these flashes of anger. At first you think he's just frustrated because it's always the same with the dead and you can really understand why he would be frustrated if person after person fights with him about being dead.

** spoiler**

But by the end, there is some truly creepy acting going on. There's a scene for example where a chic (chicken) get buried that just sent shivers up my spine. It's not gruesome, it's just intensely cold-blooded.

ScyFyterry said...

I haven't seen this, but it sounds interesting. I wonder why a film with Neeson in it made so little money? Was it an independent film? Maybe it never got a real theatrical release?

tryanmax said...

I thought this was a very well done film, mood-wise. I had to watch it a second time to get the part about how Neeson picked his victims, so even as the credits rolled on my first viewing, I was still uncertain whether Ricci had been dead or alive and whether Neeson was a killer or just a very disturbed man. Effective, I'd say.

I'm glad to hear that others think it was underrated and overlooked. I was beginning to think my Christina Ricci bias was the only reason I enjoyed this film. Unfortunately, it's as Andrew says, it doesn't quite explore those existential questions enough, so there's nothing really to discuss after the credits.

For the life of me, I cannot sort out why Justin Long got cast. He seems like a square peg throughout the whole production.

ScyFyterry said...

tryanmax, I like Ricci more the more I see her. She really is a good actrss. I like Long too, but it sounds like he wasn't up to the task here.

tryanmax said...

But, Terry, you don't understand. I've had a crush since The Addams Family. I don't think I have any objectivity left when it comes to her on camera.

ScyFyterry said...

LOL! Ok, that's a bit strange. ;)

ScyFyterry said...

I actually didn't like her much as a leading actress before I saw her in a werewolf film called Cursed.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks! I think Long was miscast because I've never seen him play a role that was as serious as this one should have been. He was far too over-the-top, whiny and just random. He seemed more like a plot device than a character. I think part, his character wasn't well written, but I suspect he also just wasn't up to the task.

Beyond that, I think the film does some excellent things. And I think your comparison to Mr. Brooks is a good one. This film has a much more eerie feel to it, but the two main characters have many similarities.

In terms of the potential, that's the one area where the film is a little weak -- in realizing it's full potential. Neeson's character is perfect and I wouldn't change anything. But I think they needed to go deeper into questions of why life is important. In other words, they need to give Ricci's character more when it comes to explaining why life is important to her. That's where I think the really huge payoff could have been in this film. But they never really get there. They do raise the question of "if you were asked why you want to continue living, what would you say," but they never really answer it. I get why they didn't, but I wish they would have gone deeper.

AndrewPrice said...

J, Thanks! As the film wrapped up and all the parts were finally revealed, I kind of scratched my head and kept saying, "this doesn't work... there are far too many coincidence." It was fortunate that I like to think about films. Because if I didn't, I probably would have walked away saying, "well, that was disappointing." But I do think about films and the more I thought, the more I realized how the pieces fit together. I think it would have helped a lot if had given just a little more explanation.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks DUQ! Those are exactly my thoughts!

P.S. I won't spoil it, but I thought the chicken scene was truly the most chilling moment in the whole film.

AndrewPrice said...

Terry, I think you would enjoy it a good deal. It's an interesting and thoughtful movie with a strong, creepy vibe. I definitely recommend it.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's why I wanted to be sure to include the spoiler because I think this film is best enjoyed when you really don't know if she's alive or dead.

** spoilers **

I think the biggest weakness (aside from Long) is the lack of explanation. I honestly wasn't sure any of this made sense as the credits started rolling. Yes, I understand that he had killed her and I got what he did to Long. I understood how he made her think she was dead too. But my first thought was that this whole thing doesn't work because it's too coincidental? And then they show you all those other people he's buried and I start trying to figure out how the coroner could be so incompetent? They kind of suggest something when Long says early on that the corner never saw the body, but just looked at the EMT report, but that can't possibly explain how so many people could be wrongly declared dead that Neeson could do this over and over again.

That's when I started to realize what he must have done, and that's when it started to come together for me.

The problem is, that's too much to ask of audiences. I like to think about films, so that was fine for me -- though it meant it took me a few minutes to enjoy the ending rather than feel disappointed. But I doubt most people will bother trying to think this through. They will just say it was too coincidental and just doesn't make sense.

As for Ricci, I liked her in Addams Family and then didn't think of her again until recently. But what I've seen recently I've really liked. The first film where I thought she was sexy was Cursed and the first film where I thought she had really solid range was actually Racer X. And since then I've been impressed with everything she's done.

AndrewPrice said...

Terry, I like Long a lot as well. I think he single-handedly changed the way nerds are presented in Galaxy Quest and a couple others. And he usually does a good job. But this was the first time I think he's done anything really dramatic and he just wasn't up to the task. I do think it wasn't all his part as the character was poorly written, but he certainly didn't help thing.

Doc Whoa said...

Andrew, You make a really great point at the end of your review about Neeson:

SPOILERS

This was Neeson's way of washing his hands. He thinks he's doing God's work (though he never uses the word God, which I thought was a nice touch because it made the character very un-cliche). So he offers these people a choice and if they choose wrong, then in his mind they have sentenced themselves to die and he is just carrying out a sentence they have imposed themselves. It's like a way for him to do this without ever accepting the blame.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax and Terry, LOL! If I ever need an application for the Ricci fan club, I know where to send it!

trynamax, Unless they used a body double in this film, then... wow. That's not Wednesday Addams anymore.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Doc!

*** spoilers ***

I think it's a very interesting aspect of his character. That is his way of disassociating himself from his crimes. In fact, I would bet that if Neeson went on trial, he would argue that he was only doing what they asked him to do. He would argue that he had no responsibility for the decision on whether or not they were to die because he gave them a choice to leave or not and they chose to stay and "ask him" to bury them.

In fact, he would further argue that he didn't kill anyone, he just laid them to rest while they were still alive. "God did the rest." Keep in mind, he doesn't actually kill-kill anyone, he just leaves them to die.

It really is a fascinating character and for that reason alone, this film deserves to get noticed.

Doc Whoa said...

SPOILERS

Andrew, That's an interesting idea, a trial. I would bet you they could never convict Neeson unless he confessed and I wonder if he would confess? I would bet he would, but he would explain as you say that he doesn't see himself as at fault.

Doc Whoa said...

Oh, on the Ricci lovefest, I like her and I can't say she's ever turned in a bad performance.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc,

*** spoilers ***

I also think he would confess, but not to being guilty, just to the acts. That's why I think his version of a serial killer is so interesting here. He would readily admit, for example, to putting people into the ground. But he would claim he has no responsibility for their deaths because (1) they asked him to do it and (2) he didn't really do the killing. It's like saying "I shot him, but the bullet is what killed him." It's the kind of fascinating disconnect that you find with insane people, and that's why I think this part is so well written.

I also think the risk aspect is really cool. I can't think of another film serial killer who flirted with getting caught like Neeson does. It's like a form of gambling. He's betting that his sense of judgment has helped him find the right people who are ready to die. If he's right, then his righteousness is confirmed. If not, then he goes to jail. Normally films need to generate risk by having close calls with the cops, where the serial killer taunts the cops. This is the first time I've seen a serial killer put his fate into the hands of his victims. Again, that's great writing.

Doc Whoa said...

Andrew, That's an interesting point too.

SPOILERS

I've seen it a couple times, like in The Hitcher, where the killer wanted to be stopped, so they try to get the victim to kill them. But I've never a situation like this where he doesn't really want to be stopped, he's instead letting fate decide his fate (for lack of a better word).

AndrewPrice said...

Doc,

*** spoilers ***

True. Hauer in The Hitcher also wanted to die. Neeson doesn't. He's much more into accepting his fate. And I see no evidence that he's suicidal because he thinks he's doing something great for the universe. It really is a fascinatingly nuanced character.

If I ever write about a serial killer, this is the guy I would study before I start.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, no. No. That’s not Wednesday Addams. Being fairly familiar with Ricci’s--ahem--body of work, I am comfortable speculating that there was no body double. To avoid seeming creepy, I’d like to point out that she and I are the same age. I realize that maintaining a pre-teen celebrity crush for 20 years is somewhat creepy in itself, so I’m not expecting full exoneration.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, We do sell exonerations in the gift shop! :)

I have to say, I was very surprised, so much so that I suspect it might be a body double.

Kelly said...

I saw this and thought it was great until the ending. What I didn't like was what happened with Long because it felt too disconnected to the rest of the film.

ScottDS said...

I've never seen the film so I don't have much to comment on. However, I think this film could be a good case-study as to why certain films are given wide releases and others are just thrown out there with no fanfare at all.

From a look at IMDb, this film played a few festivals and was put into a handful of theaters with barely any advertising.

AndrewPrice said...

Kelly, It doesn't quite fit with the rest, that's true. I mean, his story builds to that in a way, but it still feels tacked on like they file they needed one more last bit of action. It honestly wouldn't surprise me if much of his stuff was suggested by the producers.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Right, there was no wide release. I'm not sure why though. It could be that they just never had the budget or connections -- though you would think Anchor Bay would have the power to get it a couple weeks of wide release? Or maybe they didn't think the film worked when they were finished shooting it? I'm not sure. I also wonder how much they were concerned that they just didn't know how to market it. It's not a modern horror film. It's not an action or comedy. So how do you sell something that is more of a mood piece?

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Scott, Can you think of anything dramatic that Justin Long has done where he's been good?

ScottDS said...

Nothing off the top of my head. I know he's been in a horror film or two but I'm not really into that scene. And Live Free or Die Hard wasn't exactly high drama. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Yeah, I just looked him up. Jeepers Creepers and Drag Me To Hell. In both of those he played the character the exact same way he played it here and it was out of place. Perhaps he should stick to comedy?

ScottDS said...

Perhaps, but I can't blame him for trying something different.

AndrewPrice said...

No, definitely not. But I would recommend he change his style. What he presents here is more of a "freaked out teen" rather than "upset lawyer boyfriend of dead girl." Indeed, other than the fact they tell you he's a lawyers, there's nothing about him that in any way would suggest it. And I don't entirely blame him either as I think the character is poorly written. But I do think a better actor like a Colin Farrell would have done a very different interpretation of the material.

tryanmax said...

I can't think of any dramatic roles Justin Long has played, but he did steal every scene he was in in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Actually, everybody in that movie besides Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks was hilarious.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, He's been a variety of films, but it's really the comedies (and Jeepers Creepers) where he comes to mind most. I think one problem he may have with drama is that he's very young looking and sounding and that will make it hard for him to play a serious role. In other words, he still looks like a teen and that may never change.

AndrewPrice said...

You know, another point which comes to mind is that Neeson being in a low budget quasi-indi film is interesting. It seemed to me that he was a much bigger star by 2009-2010, but maybe not?

tryanmax said...

It could just be that Neeson may be the sort of actor who simply has the ability (talent-wise and financially) to do the roles he wants. I certainly wouldn't turn down a role as interesting as what he plays here if it were offered to me.

AndrewPrice said...

That's true and it's certainly possible. I just find it curious and wouldn't mind knowing his reasoning. Did he see something great in the role? Was it a favor? Is he not quite the star we think he is yet? In any event, I'm glad he did it, I just wish the film had done better.

Ed said...

I have not seen this, but you have not yet steered me wrong, so I'm adding it to my que! How's that for reader loyalty! Lol! :)

(Actually, I've been on a Liam Neeson kick and I hadn't heard of this one.)

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, That's the way it should be! :)

I think you won't be disappointed. It's not the kind of film where you leave saying, "wow brilliant!" But it is the kind of film that is enjoyable to watch and it sticks with you when you're done.

Ed said...

I will definitely check it out. I've enjoyed most of what I've seen Neeson do and this looks like it could be pretty good. I even like Justin Long. I don't quite have tryanmax's obsession with Ricci ( ;D ) but I like her too.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Coming from somebody dressed as Satan, I would be careful talking about obsessions! LOL!

Also, let me clarify. I like Justin Long. I've liked him a lot in most things. I think he's actually personally responsible for changing the way Hollywood treats nerds. I just don't like him in this role.

Ed said...

You should write about that sometime, the evolution of the nerd! That would be interesting.

Carolyn said...

Hi Andrew, Dropping by from BH through your Star Trek articles. Do you think this film is connected to the rise of horror for women, like Woman in Black?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I'll think about that. It would probably be difficult because I'm not sure how far back the nerd stereotype goes? There was certainly something like it in the past, but I'm not sure what it was? I guess we that would call for research.

AndrewPrice said...

Carolyn, Howdy! Yes, I think they are related. After.Life was written and directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, who is a woman. And it's very similar in tone to many of the recent films like Woman in Black and the Victorian one I can't currently remember the name of. Fiction too, apparently, is trending toward this as well.

Carolyn said...

Thanks Andrew, that's what I thought to. Do you think this is good or bad?

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome Carolyn. I see it as a good thing, generally, in the sense that I think some of these films are really creepy and they are a positive step away from the gory slasher flicks. My caveat would be if Hollywood does what it always does starts making these types of films only. But I don't think they've scored enough at the Box Office for that to happen.

Ed said...

BTW, I didn't mean to offend tryanmax. Sorry if that's how it came across. Sometimes the satan costume I wear to surf the web gets the better of me.

I like the trend toward more "mood" horror and away from slasher flicks. Terror is in the mind and nothing build terror better than the right mood. Buckets of blood just can't match that.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I'm sure tryanmax didn't take it wrong... just don't open your door if the delivery man is wearing Kissinger glasses and carrying a hatchet!

I agree about the mood flicks over the slasher flicks.

AndrewPrice said...

As an interesting sidenote, by the way, we've had a bit of a record at the filmsite this week. We've had four days in a row of over 1,000 visitors.

Thanks everyone! :D



(P.S. For our foreign friends, I've added a Google translation widget at the top right.)

tryanmax said...

Ed, no offense taken. I probably am obsessed, I just try to keep it at a healthy level. I mean, I think she's great, but she's no Jodi Foster. LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Now that's a joke I would have thought you would be too young to make! LOL! Nicely done! Bravo!

Individualist said...

Andrew

I saw this movie in the theater and liked it.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, I'd never heard of it until the other day and I liked it to. It made me think.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thought I'd mention I finally got to see this one.Bought a Blu-Ray for $4.99 and watched it this afternoon. Purposely did NOT re-read your review prior to watching. However, after doing so, I could not agree more with your assessment. Yes, a couple of plot holes, and yes Justin Long is just wrong for the role, but Neesom and Ricci are terrific, and the little kid Jack adds a nice touch. Lots more to like than dis-like. Once again, the big name critics get it wrong.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed. I thought it was a really great film for the most part, except for the things I mention.

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