The Sleepless Movie Review
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AFTER.LIFE
2009
Written and directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo
104 Minutes
Rated R for nudity, disturbing images, language and brief sexuality

After.Life is the touching story of a promising new writer-director stepping on her own dick, as it were. I picked this one up off of Netflix after a review at High Def Digest promised some fairly interesting genre fare and copious amounts of Christina Ricci nudity. As an offhand observation, it seems like films by female directors are frequently willing to play the nudity card on their actresses, often with much more zeal than their male counterparts. At any rate, High Def Digest seemed to inflate both of these figures a bit. Ricci doesn't spend that much of the movie naked, and the movie isn't that interesting.

Part of the issue stems from the fact that there are good ideas buried here, and I've made the cardinal sin of any art student: appraising the work not on its own terms or on the terms of its creator, but on my terms. I spent a lot of the movie thinking about how I would have tackled the same material, naturally drawing the conclusion that my take would be superior. Mine would be much more understated, and after watching the film, would fuck around lot less. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo is, among many other things, a brilliant meditation on death. His film is quiet, low key, and pays off.

There are really two conceits going on with After.Life: one is a meditation on death, and one is an exercise in the thriller genre. One of these conceits has potential; the other does not. The basic idea as a thriller is to determine if Liam Neeson's undertaker is a psychopath trying to convince Christina Ricci's character that she's dead so that he can eventually bury her alive, or if he's a potentially unfortunate soul tasked with helping the recently deceased accept their demise. On paper this is a compelling idea, but in practice it gets royally fucked in the details. Here's a problem among many: either read makes elements of the film fail. Any film, even the crappiest of genre hackwork, has to line up based on its own internal logic. David Lynch proved you could achieve this without your film making any fucking sense with Mulholland Dr. (Sidenote: I love Mulholland Dr.)

I warn you that I'm going to spoil which of these reads is the correct one, but in fairness, the writer-director herself does as much in the "Making Of" on the disc (yet another cardinal sin: if your film is intended to be a mindbender like this one, don't hand out the solution. Even Christopher Nolan hasn't told anyone the "solution" to Inception.) So here's the spoiler: Neeson's character is a psychopath, and Christina Ricci's character has been alive the whole time.

Why did I spoil it? Because once you watch the movie it's going to be painfully obvious. A good friend of mine was fond of pointing out that Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining was unhinged before he ever got to the hotel, so you're never really surprised when he finally snaps. In much the same token, Neeson's character is obviously a basketcase from frame one. He's cold, distant, aloof, a series of characteristics which generally don't define undertakers but do define movie serial killers. When we're being guided to the next life, we expect someone warm, with a soothing voice. Neeson's character hasn't an ounce of warmth to him, but is clearly possessed of a deep-seated hatred for those around him that only becomes more pronounced as the film goes on. That may very well be the filmmaker's intention, but it's reductive. Her gambit might not have failed so miserably if he had been warm, if he had seemed like the gentle caretaker of your soul, if he showed emotion or sensitivity.

Wojtowicz-Vosloo spells out the clues in the featurette, but honestly they're painfully obvious when you watch the film. In fact the only reason they don't stick is because of all the feints, the scenes that try to suggest Ricci might really be moving on but actually just don't make any fucking sense. That problem is compounded by how stark everything is: the volume on this movie was about a 7, and to make this shit work it would've needed to blend more seamlessly together. It would've needed to be about a 3 or a 4.

Trying to run everything at such a high level of intensity is like listening to a heavy metal album front-to-back: if everything is loud and with a heavy tempo, you will get tired long before the end of the album. It will exhaust you. By the same token, After.Life exhausts you to the point where you just don't give a shit anymore. This is a shame, too, because there is some real thought going into how people deal with grief, or how the recently deceased might reflect on their life, the mistakes they made, and whether or not they have any regrets. But this gets buried under the noise of a "is she or isn't she dead" ruse that doesn't work internally.

Again, my sin in assessing this film is that I would've handled it differently. No one's ever accused me of making anything particularly loud: most of my films have a low energy level bordering on comatose, and Sleepless is admittedly likely to bore most audiences. If I'd had my way, I'd've kept a closer eye on the finer details (Ricci shouldn't be waking up on the slab wearing the dress she theoretically died in a car accident in), brought the whole thing down a few steps, and warmed up Neeson's character a lot. It's a cliche but a good one: he should be warm, friendly, and inviting, so that if you play your cards right, when the big reveal happens it drops the floor out from under the audience. There'll be a couple assholes in the room that aren't surprised he's actually just a sociopath, but like I said...if done well, that could work.

Unfortunately, After.Life doesn't work. It isn't a confused mess, but it is one that has a hard time wrangling all of its ideas. The conceit would've been difficult for even the best director to really work with, and unfortunately Wojotowicz-Vosloo just doesn't have the chops for it. If I can give her any consolation prize, it's this one: the film is a failure, but at least she tried.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.