As a creepy undertaker in After.Life, Liam Neeson believes that he can hear the dead protesting that they're not ready to go. He has a moral duty to ease their passing, keeping a calm demeanor in the face of the unquiet dead. It might even be something like love he displays as he helps the dearly departed leave everything behind.
There's something quite disturbing in the ideas behind this movie. Possibly writer/director Agniezka Wojtowicz-Vosloo wanted to make a serious meditation on the meaning of our mortality.
However, rather than feed our heads, she just messes with them. By the end of this movie, it's impossible to tell whether you've seen a tale of the supernatural or a failed thriller. This isn't because it's too vague and understated. Plenty of evidence exists for either take, and that's not including the utterly obvious dream sequences that ostensibly provide cheap scares.
From time to time interesting visuals pop up, but they just add to an inconsistent tone. It feels like perhaps they cut corners in some scenes in order to have a bigger budget for others. Certainly, there's not a dollar wasted on extras. Even without a creep like Neeson's Eliot Deacon, this would be a ghost town.
Our central ghost - or is she? - starts out very much alive and very much annoying. Christina Ricci plays middle school teacher Anna Taylor, a girl already beaten by life. Sex holds no savor, to the disappointment of her boyfriend Paul (Justin Long). Her job certainly doesn't have her interest, as she can barely muster the energy to discipline some school bullies.
A protagonist can be unlikeable, but Anna is just downright shrill and stupid. More than once in the movie, she builds false suspense by being unable to figure out that she should pull a door open and not push. But then, she also seems flummoxed by the concept of a light switch, all so that After.Life can ask the question, is Anna already dead?
Please insert your own spooky howling noises here.
Then again, almost everyone in this movie has the same trouble spelling I.Q. If Deacon has indeed been burying people alive - and a wall of photos implies he has been plying his trade for quite some time - then it's because no one in town is competent at their jobs.
Josh Charles plays the sheriff and best friend to the grieving Paul, but not once does his character display any willingness or ability to actually investigate a possible crime. He's given so little of weight to do, Wojtowicz-Vosloo could have merely mounted his ridiculous movie mustache on a stick and it would have carried as much authority.
Nor does attorney Paul seem to have any ability to file an injunction, force a viewing of the body or anything that anybody who has watched Law & Order with any regularity might suggest doing. But then, one of the problems with his relationship has been that both he and Anna are emotionally constipated.
This makes Anna a ripe candidate for Deacon's "mission." Life scares her, and perhaps not without good reason, but it also seems like it's all out of proportion. If her behavior in the first ten minutes convinces you that her character is crazy, nothing she does with her remaining time on Earth will change your mind.
Instead, she lolls around naked on the slab, allegedly sleeping a lot. Yet no human would sleep as if they were posing for a Playboy pictorial, especially if they thought they were dead. So if the director couldn't make me question my fear of death, at least she could offer me some other disturbing proposition: how could the sight of Christina Ricci naked be rendered utterly boring?
There's also a very wooden young boy wandering in and out of the proceedings, either a whistle blower or a protégé to the Grim Reaper. His willingness to accept whatever explanation given to him may be the only believable thing in the movie.
Neeson's character opines over and over that what he really does is bury the already dead, those who are just breathing our air and eating our food. What about those who insist on wasting our time with horror movies that make no sense and worse, don't make up for it by at least being fun?
Let's just bury After.Life and be done with it.