This movie could never have been made in Hollywood. Hollywood simply does not produce works this intelligent. This movie is so intelligent, in fact, that it is remarkable that it was ever made at all, anywhere.
It is not, however, unintelligible. The entire film is told in a language well accessible to all: the language of relationships.
Besides the stunning cinematography, which transforms the very landscape into a character, there are five remarkable aspects of this film: the extraordinary storytelling technique, the use of sound, the exploration of relationships, the acting, and the way the whole film reaches in and grabs your heart, wrenches it about, and still leaves you feeling lightened and strangely refreshed at the end.
The most remarkable of these aspects is the storytelling. The plot slips backward and forward in time, like memory -- a single image here, a conversation there, an absurdity, a pang -- just as a person would remember a sequence of events -- nonsequentially. Often when directors attempt this approach we are left confused or exhausted by too much arty-ness. Not here. The film builds patiently, but not slowly, and it is impossible to lose track of the actual course of events. Although there is a certain oblique quality to the views we are granted -- we don't really know these people, and it is clear that we are outsiders observing their lives through someone else's memory glass -- there is no confusion as to what happened to whom, when -- and why, when there is a "why."
One of the reasons we do not lose track is the truly virtuoso handling of sound. All the sounds of the characters and their lives, their speech, their footsteps and other incidental sounds, as well as the strong and poignant soundtrack, weave complex scenes together with some very neat and complicated editing. A strain of speech or music overlapping from its scene of origin into another scene not only accomplishes the continuity but also increases this feeling of memory, that we are experiencing this entire period of time the way the people living in it would when looking back upon it, in random yet connected pieces, not as a single shot from beginning to end. It also underscores another strong element of the structure of the movie, the way we are made to feel the slippery, sliding aspect of the future coming up quickly and inexorably.
More than anything else, the relationships in this film are the point -- relationships between parents and children, between lovers, between community members with each other, between humans and the landscape, between a community and an outsider. The film explores not only how these relationships are, in plain and simple fact, but how they change both due to fate and due to chosen courses of action.
The relationships explored are shown in depth by several truly brilliant performances. Of particular note are the characters created by Ian Holm, Gabrielle Rose, Bruce Greenwood, Alberta Watson, and Arsinee Khanjian. Each of these characters is so real and natural and full, even put together as they are in a sort of patchwork, snippet-by-snippet fashion, it is hard to believe they are make-believe. I will never ever forget any of them, and I do hope to see a lot more of each of these actors -- especially the lesser known -- in the future.
The Sweet Hereafter is a tragedy in that it hinges on a tragic event, a bus accident which kills a number of children in a small town. This is no spoiler; the viewer discovers it very soon. Because of this central event, many people have described this film as too depressing to watch. This is simply not true. As my friend Teri so rightly put it, The Sweet Hereafter is "curiously life affirming."
Yes, the film affirms, there are things that happen to us from which we can never recover, as individuals and as a community. Yes, most lives, even some young lives, contain betrayal and disappointment and even horror. Nevertheless, the film also affirms that it is possible to survive and wish to. It also shows how it is possible to continue loving a person who has betrayed you or disappointed you, even more than once, just as it is possible to betray someone out of love without destroying the relationship. Sometimes betrayal is something you can't help, and sometimes it's something you have to do to save someone else.
Now, why this exploration leaves a certain lightness behind is something I cannot explain without spoiling the film. I will say, however, that the experience of the movie left me smiling, albeit wistfully, that I watched it more than once, and that I will watch it again.
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