The Sweet Hereafter
Screenplay : Atom Egoyan (based on the novel by Russell Banks)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Ian Holm (Russell Stephens), Bruce Greenwood (Billy Ansell), Gabrielle Rose (Dolores Driscoll), Sarah Polley (Nicole Burnell), Tom McCamus (Sam Burnell), Brooke Johnson (Mary Burnell), Maury Chaykin (Wendell Walker), Alberta Watson (Risa Walker), Arsinee Khanjian (Wanda Otto), Earl Pastko (Hartley Otto), Stephanie Morgenstern (Allison), Caerthan Banks (Zoe Stephens)
In "The Sweet Hereafter," writer/director Atom Egoyan takes us beyond the tragedy of death into the tragedy of living. He shows us how it isn't dying that hurts, but rather the pain of living in the hereafter of death, and dealing with the loss and grief that it brings.
On a cold winter day in a small, isolated town in British Columbia, a school bus full of children slides off the highway and onto a frozen lake, where it cracks through the ice and sinks. Fourteen children die, and numerous others are hurt. For the residents of this small town, all of whose children were on that bus, it is an earth-shattering event that resolutely alters their lives. They have always relied on each other in the past to deal with heartache and pain, but it seems that this tragedy is more than they can handle.
Alberta and Risa Walker, who own a local motel and lost their child in the accident, hire an attorney named Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) to bring a lawsuit against someone, anyone for responsibility. The bus driver, Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), is a kindly woman who loved the children and, although she lives with a burden of guilt, is not held responsible for the accident. The bus seems to have simply slipped on some ice, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.
However, according to Stephens, there are no "accidents" in life, and someone will pay for this tragedy, whether that be the manufacturer of the bus or the guardrail the bus broke through. He goes through the town, approaching the parents who have lost children, asking them to join the class action suit and find vent for their anger. And, for his work, Stephens will receive one-third of the settlement money.
However, it is immediately apparent that Stephens has little or no interest in the money. He is driven by something else, something deeper that he shares in common with the grieving parents. He has lost a child, too, but not in the same manner. His daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks), who once almost died in his arms as a young child after a spider bite, has been in and out of drug re-hab clinics and detox stations for ten years. She calls him on an irregular basis, begging him for money, but refusing to tell him what she needs it for. "I don't know who I'm taking to," he tells her. In his mind, his daughter is dead.
The lawsuit is, to Stephens, not only a way to mend the town's pain, but also his own. However, not everyone in town wants it to happen. Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), who was driving behind the bus when the accident happened and lost two children, wants nothing to do with it. He has already lost his wife, and he buries his grief in an affair with a married woman. He doesn't want to talk about the accident, and he sees the lawsuit as nothing more than the unnecessary opening of old wounds. To him, the town should be able to take care of its own pain, and it doesn't need outsiders like Stephens getting in the way.
Central to "The Sweet Hereafter" is the tale of Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), a teenage girl who dreams of being a singer before the accident turned her into "a wheelchair girl," as she puts it. Aside from Stephens, Nicole is the most complex character in the film, and it is she who ultimately decides the fate of the town and how the lawsuit will turn out.
It is also her sad, haunted voice that we often hear on the soundtrack, reading Robert Browning's poem about the Pied Piper, and how when he led all the town's children away, one was left behind because he was crippled. Obviously, Nicole is that child, and she feels somehow betrayed that the rest of the town's children left her alone by dying in the wreck.
Her situation is further complicated because she is involved in a loving, but incestuous relationship with her father (Tom McCamus). There is only one, fleeting scene that suggests this relationship, but it is somehow tied into the final act of the film. Of all the storylines in "The Sweet Hereafter," this is the most complicated and unresolved, although its implications stretch throughout the entirety of the film. Egoyan knows that the kinds of questions he brings up have no simple answers -- if any at all -- and he doesn't condescend to the audience by trying to neatly wrap it up.
What Egoyan has done in "The Sweet Hereafter" is really nothing short of miraculous. In his adaptation of the novel by Russell Banks, he has made a deeply moving film about a lawyer by transcending the pettiness of law and driving headlong into the deeper meaning of what is loss, and how pitiful monetary and material possessions are when compared to human life.
Egoyan has always been a talented, but distant and cerebral filmmaker whose work suffered only in that it felt so cold. "The Sweet Hereafter" is quite the opposite; Egoyan's stylistic and narrative structures work brilliantly to heighten the impact of the natural emotion, and draw the audience into the tragedy. "The Sweet Hereafter" seems to contain the combined emotional impact that all his other films lacked.
The film is filled with beautiful, subtle performances from all the actors, especially Ian Holm as the lawyer and Sarah Polley as the sad child who was left behind. The beautiful, roving camerawork by Paul Sarossy and the haunting, melodic musical score by Mychael Danna (both previous Egoyan collaborators) give the film a visual and aural cohesiveness with the thematic elements.
Like his earlier films, Egoyan weaves together multiple storylines that form a blanketing whole. He works with time as a fluid substance, shifting back and forth between the past, the distant past, and the present with effortless ease. The actual bus wreck itself doesn't happen until midway through the film, but by that time the event has built up so much emotion that Egoyan can film it from a distance with no graphic detail, and still have it carry great, devastating weight.
Because human life has become such a cheap commodity in movies, it is astounding that Egoyan can convey so much heartbreak in such simple, direct terms. Certainly one of the best films of 1997, "The Sweet Hereafter" is a deeply rewarding, mystifying, and ultimately human film.
©1998 James Kendrick