The Sweet Hereafter
Who's to blame when there's no one to blame for a senseless accident?
Thursday, February 5, 1998
Here''s a name with which you probably aren''t familiar: Atom Egoyan. This Canadian independent filmmaker toils in the same fields of relative obscurity as Mike Leigh and Alan Rudolph, making idiosyncratic films seen by only the most diligent of viewers. But if The Sweet Hereafter is any indication, he won''t be a cult favorite for long. Elliptical and enigmatic, this bittersweet study of love, grief, guilt, loss and, ultimately, justice stays with you long after the credits have rolled.
Egoyan''s nuanced screenplay--taken from a 1991 novel by Russell Banks--takes place in the fictional town of Sam Dent, British Columbia, where a school bus has swerved off an icy road into a frozen lake, killing and injuring dozens of children. In the accident''s aftermath, a big-city lawyer (Ian Holm) comes to town looking for clients. Somebody is to blame, he insists, even though he doesn''t know whom. "There is no such thing as an accident," he tells them. "You need to do this for the protection of other innocent children."
Yes, indeed: In the face of a senseless accident, who is to blame, and where does one''s responsibility lie? It is to Egoyan''s credit that he doesn''t give you easy answers. Instead, the film retells the accident from the point of view of various townspeople whose voice-over narrations are interspliced with icily serene landscapes of snow-covered Canadian hillsides. A haunting musical score by Mychael Danna adds to the surreal atmosphere.
The fateful accident occurs midway through the film and is handled with great tact and subtlety yet is still emotionally engaging. Egoyan uses dark and light expertly throughout the film. The scenes shot indoors are underlit, representing the characters'' interior lives, while the outside scenes shine with brilliant white light.
As attorney Mitchell Stephens, Holm is superb, worming his way into the grieving families'' homes with slippery charm and inflated promises. He doesn''t fit easily into the category of ambulance chaser; his blank face and stoic delivery as he explains how he doesn''t receive a penny unless he wins the case sounds rote. His Pinteresque character has his own agenda: He has lost a daughter, Zoe, to drugs instead of an accident. Somebody has to pay.
The premise of the movie sounds depressing, and yet I found this movie anything but. The characters, portrayed by veterans from Egoyan''s stable of actors, seem so real, so believable, and the filmmaker''s depiction of their lot is so tender that you just identify with them. There''s Bruce Greenwood as the widower who lost two daughters in the accident. He''s bitter and wants nothing to do with the lawsuit. Sarah Polley is a talented school girl who wants to be a singer and seems awfully close (and vice versa) to her father, played by Tom McCamus. Maury Chaykin and Alberta Watson are the married innkeepers who have a few secrets of their own. Gabrielle Rose is the bus driver who just barely escaped the accident and lives with grief of her own.
There''s also repeated recitation of the poem, "The Pied Piper of Hamlin," used as a metaphor for.what? At first I thought it was a comment on a deity''s anger with the parents of the village for their irresponsibility, but now, two weeks after seeing the film, it seems more like a comment on survivor''s guilt. The saddest figure in the poem is the lame boy who couldn''t dance to the piper''s tune and is left behind, the last child in Hamlin.
As he did in his last film (Exotica), Egoyan tells the story out of sequence, intersplicing scenes from the past and the present with few obvious visual cues. You have to pay attention; this is one of those more-is-less films. We get snapshots of the story, as though we''re looking at tiles from a mosaic in extreme close-up, not getting the big picture until the end.
There are also characteristic bits of Egoyan weirdness: What is up with the bus driver''s husband, anyway? Irony is as close to humor as Egoyan gets, and there''s a detached, observer''s quality to the film that my viewing companion found off-putting.
Honored at Cannes and winner of numerous awards for editing, sound, and set design, The Sweet Hereafter is one of the best films to come out of 1997-or any year. cw