This is the story of two strangers, who happened to grow up in the same small town, meeting randomly on a bus ride and are ultimately involved in an accident. They both wake up afterwards to discover that the whole town is deserted and surrounded by a thick black fog that is slowly creeping closer and closer to engulf everything. The two strangers need to become friends and work together to figure out what has happened, what is hiding in the fog and how they can escape. – Recaps, Reviews, And Other Stuff, April 3, 2014

Confronting darkness, will Anna and Freddy find their way to the light?

Confronting darkness, will Anna and Freddy find their way to the light?

When I first saw the film Jacob’s Ladder sometime in the 1990’s, I knew I was watching one of the most visually stunning, terrifying, and beautiful films I ever would see. Somewhere over the decades, I lost the film, but its images and story were so vivid, so arresting, I can recall it all. Since then, movies, television, even music have all tried to tell the story of that odd state we shall all occupy at some point: we are not dead, yet we are not alive. Whether it lasts for weeks or mere seconds (as in Jacob’s Ladder), the premise has been worked over, both poorly and well many times since.

I don’t know that any film will do aesthetic justice to that experience that some call “Summerland” – between death and life; perhaps between death and our final destination – although the final season and episode of the TV series Lost does an admirable job, with the final episode always bringing me to tears. After has many of the virtues of this particular story structure, few of the pitfalls, traps, and sheer bad writing and directing that have led other such films (Kingdom Come was another attempt to tell the same story, but settled for gratuitous nudity and violence, and certainly no sympathy for the characters; when the devil comes to claim them each in turn, I for one am quite happy). The simplicity of the film, limiting it by and large to the actions and relationship between just two people sharing a similar fate, facing the same questions, and trying their best to avoid what they come to understand as a final ending, all the while coming to know one another, appreciate the similarities in their lives and personalities, and perhaps finding more than enough to give them the strength they need to escape the darkness that, while slow, is also inexorable in its movements to swallow them both.

Toss in a horrible monster that like to eat people, as imagined by a younger version of one of the characters, and there’s all sorts of potential not just for storytelling, but character and relationship study.

Part of the unfolding story is the characters coming to terms with one specific day in which their paths crossed in ways both marvelously innocent and tragic for both. Who they are now is directly connected to the events of that day. Overcoming that day and all it still holds for them is the Big Thing of this film: Will they? If they do, what happens then? Does “After” refer to what happens if they succeed?

Actually, the title refers to both characters whole lives after that one moment/ It is, really, just a moment, but it is a moment that has captured both in ways we see unfold throughout the movie before the Big Reveal (and I’ve already said too much).

The film is well written, with very few cliches such as jump scares, constant screaming by the female lead, and macho posing by the male lead. In fact, at one point while he is trying desperately to shoot something, she yells, “You’re a terrible shot! Give me that!” and hits her target the very first time. It is a tension-releaving moment that is very welcome. The story unfolds carefully, not too slowly nor too quickly. There is enough tension and weirdness to keep viewers interested even before you hear the first growl and see the first evidence of the creature in the darkness.

As for acting, the two leads Steven Strait and Karolina Wydra, are affecting as two social misfits who prefer their own company. There are no histrionics, especially as Strait underplays his character for much of the film. That they grew up on the same street yet only crossed paths once is believable, precisely because we come to know these two people not just as types, but as people, living out what has come after that fateful day.

The look and emotional depth and wideness are superb, especially with the film score being just exactly right, employed for emotional impact rather than shock value. This is a small film that achieved high production value by shooting for realism not through gimmickry but rather through excellent story-telling, acting, and direction. The rest fell in to place to serve the story rather than show themselves off.

As for the story’s premise, ever since Jacob’s Ladder, and Lost, and even The Last Temptation of Christ, which employs the same metaphysical question to probe Jesus’s final moments, I have to admit that, whether done well as these three films (and now After) have done or poorly as in other films, I have become intrigued by the whole notion that, facing death, we might well confront not only our lives, but our lives masquerading as horrors that we must, in these final moments, confront and overcome. Perhaps, however, we merely forget who we were, only grasping who we are through a moment that reminds us who we are. That we might be gathered together with others with whom we shared significant moments – the whole premise of the last season of Lost – is a kind of comfort, really. Whether horrifying, comforting, or some combination of both (as in After) the possibility would perhaps give the lie to the constant refrain in our existential age that death is something we face alone.

In After, we not only see how courage overcomes a lifetime’s worth of hiding. We also see the power of human connection, not sappy love but real relating with all that entails, and how it can overcome all the ways we try to hide ourselves away from the world. Nothing, it seems, not even those moments when we find ourselves facing the reality of our death, can escape the liberating, life-giving power of love. We talk about this so often it is almost a cliche. In After we see it as a reality, not with strings and The Expected Sex Scene, but two people who begin as strangers learning to live in this strange world together, to navigate that strangeness – both outside themselves and between one another – first awkwardly then with growing confidence and, finally, an honest but hardly over-the-top expression of mutual affection. That this is the tenderest moment rather than sexual only testifies to how well written this film is. As the whole premise of After is that even small moments carry weight in our lives long “after” they occur, it is not just beautiful but wholly appropriate the moment between Anna and Freddy is quiet and tender rather than naked and sweaty.

This isn’t really a horror film, even though there are frightening images and moments of tension and fear. I would recommend this movie to anyone interested in a good story well-written and presented; a thought-provoking presentation of an idea that is, at the very least, interesting in its implications; and good old fashioned movie making that prizes story over flash, and real human relating instead of skin and sex.

I know I’ll be watching this movie again very soon.