The film stars Liam Neeson, Christina Ricci and Justin Long. Hmm, what can I say here without giving away crucial elements of the story… well, it’s a great film, makes for a really awesome catch-up. Especially if you are in the mood to figure “what happened” after you are done with the film. Eliot (Liam) plays the role of a funeral home owner. He has the job of “preparing” the dead for their funeral ceremony. Anna (Christina) is a middle school teacher in a relationship with Paul (Justin). Three of their lives intersect because of an incident which puts Anna in a life and death situation. Here’s the film After Life explained, spoilers galore!
This film is like watching an optical illusion. The biggest question the plot poses – Is Anna actually dead? The film drops enough hints to suggest that she is, in fact, dead. On the other, hand there are enough clues that point in the direction that Eliot is simply lying, and that he cannot talk to the dead. Just like the famous rabbit-or-duck illusion, every time you sway in one direction, you find details in the plot to sway back in the other.
I’ve seen a lot of people feeling satisfied with the theory that Eliot can actually talk to dead people. That Anna is actually dead and Eliot is helping her “cross over”. He has a whole bunch of photos talking to him, these are the various dead people he has arranged the funeral ceremony for. These dead people talk to him too. Eliot is a man with a gift, a curse, and he is merely playing his part in death and beyond. The refusal of Anna’s acceptance of her death makes it difficult for Paul too. He’s haunted by paranormal events and terrible dreams. In the end Paul dies too and will be helped in crossing over.
Well, that is not the case. Here’s what is happening. Eliot is a character who has grown tired of people who live meaningless, empty lives. He has made it his life’s mission to “kill” these people. Many questions pop up right now. First off, why take the long route of convincing these people that they are dead? Secondly, how do people land up in his funeral home if they are not already dead? Read on.
Eliot and Anna
Let’s go back to the start. Anna is seen attending the funeral of her piano teacher in the beginning. Eliot has arranged this funeral. He sees Anna. He perhaps has been keeping a watch on her. Later on, Anna has a pointless fight with Paul and storms out on him. In the rain, she drives and is extremely distracted. Note the still from that scene. Notice Eliot taking his car out later to fill fuel. It’s the same vehicle. See picture below. This suggests that Eliot was driving and honking behind her. Eliot causes Anna’s accident. What happens off camera is this – because he’s at the scene of the accident before anyone else, he has the time to inject Anna with a drug that slows her pulse to a near stop. The paramedics at the scene eventually proclaim her dead with no pulse and she’s transported to the funeral home, which is owned solely by Eliot. Why that funeral home? Well, perhaps given the known circle of people, he’s the more obvious choice. That is a fairly strong assumption to how Anna lands up alive at his funeral home, but proclaimed medically dead.
So why the long route you ask? If Eliot is a serial killer, why doesn’t he just kill her at the spot of the accident and be done with? Well here’s why. Eliot feels the following and even says it out in the film later to that kid Jack (we’ll get to him in a bit) :
Don’t you see? I have no choice. I’m the only one who can see all these corpses. Wandering the earth aimlessly. All they do is piss and shit. Suffocating us with their stench. Doing nothing with their lives. Taking the air away from those who actually want to live. I have to bury them all. I have no choice.
What he intends to say here is that he considers aimless people to be as good as dead. He feels they are better off in the ground, six feet under. But at the precipice of life turning to death, Eliot wants to know if these people can change. By putting people in a situation and convincing them that they are “crossing over”, Eliot wants to see if some of them can change and embrace life more fully Or if they concur, chicken out and consider themselves better off being dead. As a killer, this is possibly him giving his victims a last chance.
Anna is only drugged, not dead
Eliot has drugged Anna sufficiently to ensure she can’t feel anything, not even her own pulse. She even asks why she can’t feel anything. He has also put enough makeup on Anna to make her look like a corpse. But she’s not yet dead, she’s alive. She sees herself in the mirror and slowly resigns to the fact that she’s actually dead. The drugs do make her hallucinate, but none of the paranormal things happening to Anna are real. It’s all in her mind and the drugs are adding to it.
Eliot offers Anna a last chance. He offers her to get up and walk out. He asks her “Isn’t this what you wanted?”. As Anna starts leaving, the fear of “living” life scares her enough to make her stay in the room. This fear is what is shown to us as the scene with old woman and Paul standing around while Anna is being choked. Anna snaps out of it, she’s still in the funeral home and she says “no”. Eliot says “I thought you were different. You all say you’re scared of death. But the truth is you’re more scared of life”. Eliot is really giving that chance to Anna, but is disappointed because she chooses death. She says “I’m glad I’m dead. I’m glad it’s over”. Perhaps the others Eliot “deals” with accept that they are dead much more quickly, perhaps Anna fights much harder. But in the end she too chickens out from giving life a chance.
Paul is not allowed to see Anna after her death. He’s not yet engaged to her and is therefore not family. He’s going through a lot of guilt. Anna’s mother doesn’t seem to like him and tells him that he shouldn’t have let her drive in that weather. All the images of the dead Anna holding her heart and the selectively-nodding-bobble-head are things that are manifesting in his own head. These are happening because of his guilt. They are not paranormal activities. Anna tries to make a phone call to Paul but he hears only static. This could be because Eliot has bugged the phone or just bad luck.
While Paul is finding ways to come to terms with Anna’s death he is approached by Jack, a student of hers, who tells Paul that he saw anna by the window wearing a red dress. Initially Paul thinks Jack is being a jerk and socks him in the face. Later, a mannequin wearing a red slip reminds Paul that Anna was wearing that the morning of the accident. Paul begins to think that Anna is alive and tries to confront Eliot, but with no success. Anna hears Paul at Eliot’s house but is convinced that she is dead and she needs to move on. Paul tries to work it with the cops to get a warrant to search Eliot’s place but the cops don’t believe him. Anna was proclaimed dead as there was no heartbeat or a pulse. One of the cops says he saw Anna and she was dead. The other cop says – “there are drugs like that chief. Hydronium Bromide. Total paralysis within seconds. The heartbeat slows to almost nothing”. This part here gives the hint of what is actually happening with Anna. But Paul has no support, he has to back down.
This kid is a little dark. He has this fascination with death, the dying and dead things. While the movie leads us to believe that Jack has “powers”, it is just that he is a kid with an inexplicable fascination. The chick that Jack has in his possession is a dying chick, not yet dead. Jack is attempting to nurse it back to health. When Jack sees Anna at the funeral home, he naturally assumes that he sees the dead Anna. This he tries to tell Paul. Later, when Eliot meets Jack, he tells him to not fear his “gift”. This part is quite evil. Eliot sees a little bit of himself in Jack and agrees to helping him (they both have crazy mothers). Later we see Jack bury the chick alive in a box. Eliot has convinced Jack that he needs to bury the beings that are incapable of living. The chick might be clinically alive but is somehow unwilling to heal and get better. This gives Jack the reason to consider the chick dead and bury it. Eliot has a predecessor now.
So Anna is alive. Eliot has her convinced that she is dead. He gives her a chance to live and she’s denied it. She wants to see herself once more before the funeral. Eliot shows her the mirror. Anna breathes onto the mirror and it fogs. This happens earlier on too but Anna doesn’t notice. Only Eliot does. She realizes that Eliot has been lying to her. The dead cannot breath warm air. But it’s too late, she has had her chance. Eliot drugs her and the funeral ceremony begins. Paul arrives to see the apparently dead Anna. He touches her her and reacts by saying how cold she is. Anna is trying to wake up but is unable to, thanks to the drug. This happens in the first scene with the piano teacher too. Eliot shuts the lid. They bury the coffin. After this, Anna wakes up and realizes she has been buried alive.
Paul is dazed, confused and filled with guilt. But he is also filled with suspicion about Eliot. After having much to drink, Paul confronts Eliot. Eliot provokes him by saying – “Maybe she’s still alive. You obviously don’t believe a word I say. So why don’t you go and find out for yourself. Find out whether she’s alive or dead”. Paul panics and begins to head over to the cemetery. He’s very drunk and is unable to drive properly. He’s speeding and overtaking. Eliot expects this and is why he provokes Paul. Paul meets with an accident. The accident is not shown. Instead, we are shown Paul continuing to drive in an empty street, reaching the cemetery and rescuing Anna from her grave. This part is only in Paul’s head. In reality, Paul gets hit by an SUV at the blind turn. Eliot, who follows him, gets to Paul and injects him with the “magic drug”. The paramedics proclaim him dead and Paul is now in Eliot’s funeral home.
The key difference that you will note is that Eliot has no intentions of taking Paul through the treatment he gives Anna. Paul suspects Eliot and is therefore not going to fall for anything Eliot has to say. Eliot knows this. Earlier, when Anna wakes up on Eliot’s table, she has been administered a numbing drug. She can’t feel anything. No pain, no pulse, nothing. However, Paul has not been given this. Eliot takes a long pipe and stabs Paul, killing him. Paul screams out in pain and dies. Eliot can now go back to what he does best. Oh, and Jack is in on this kill too.