The Sweet Hereafter is as tragic, sad and matter-of-fact as movies get, but it's still so very beautiful that it becomes a film that's virtually impossible to forget.
The story makes no secret of the fact what terrible tragedy will happen, right from the outset. A lesser filmmaker than Atom Egoyan would've jumped at the chance to shock the audience with the freak accident that robs the town of Sam Dent of nearly all their children, by telling the story in a linear fashion. Not Egoyan. The story is fragmented, thus enhancing the true point: This is not about the overwhelming power of loss, it is about the overwhelming power of survivor's guilt (nicely represented in Browning's poem The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, which is referred to in the movie). It's all about people who grieve not only for the ones they've lost, but also for themselves, how empty their lives have become because of their tragedies. In focussing on that point, the film refrains from manipulative sentiment (which so many others don't), and presents true and unintrusive emotion, that, in the end, despite all the terror, shines a light of hope, for the sweet hereafter is not only the peaceful afterlife, it's also the peaceful future, the continuation of life...
The performances speak for themselves. Ian Holm and Sarah Polley shine in particular, through nicely subdued and subtle acting. Polley also excels as a fantastic singer-songwriter. The songs in the movie were written and performed all by herself.
Egoyan's direction is simply masterful in its beauty, elegance and evocation.
When it comes to drama, The Sweet Hereafter represents the finest cinema of the decade. The film lifts the director Atom Egoyan to the highest place of Canadian directors -right next to David Cronenberg. With extraordinary intelligence, Egoyan -the maker of "Exotica"- creates labyrinths of relationships. Brilliantly using flashbacks the director reveals the emotions of the characters to the viewers -a powerful way to make the audience feel anxiety.
The Sweet Hereafter is based on a novel by Russell Banks. This doesn't mean that Egoyan hasn't created a film that looks like his own creation. Very beautifully, even with a sense of poetry, the camera moves in a canadian small-town, a scenery full of snow. The nicely unusual music of Mychael Danna creates the mood when a lawyer played by Ian Holm arrives to the town. A School bus lies under ice, and the lawyer is invited to sue someone for the loss of several children.
A very important slice of the scenario belongs to a school girl (Sarah Polley), who realizes that the grief of loss can't be eased by judging the cause of it. Also the other people of the town play a remarkable role in the script.
Egoyan speaks clearly, but with a sound of personality, about the need of love, the pain of loneliness and the crossing of emotional obstacles. Fortunately someone knows how to direct interesting movies with elements of drama in them. The Sweet Hereafter possesses a brilliant structure where the visual telling breaths in the spirit of symbolism. I'm a very demanding viewer, a true cynic who always tries to find the worst sides of the film, but in this case I can't say anything negative.
I re-watched The Sweet Hereafter on video last night, and am still haunted by it today. It is structured so that you know some of the basic tragic plot near the beginning. This caused my eyes to water at some of the beautiful lyrical overhead tracking shots of the school bus winding through the snow covered roads of the Pacific northwest.
The film switches between the time that the lawyer arrives in town to "help" the families receive compensation, and to days just prior to the accident. We witness a loving "hippie" couple who has adopted a beautiful Native American boy, a loving mother of a school phobic learning disabled boy, and a widower who loves his two children a great deal and sees them off to school by following them in his truck. This same widower is having an affair with the mother of the school phobic--she is unhappily married to a "pig" of a husband. Complicating matters is the father who obviously loves his teenage daughter in Lolita-like fashion.
Part of the theme of The Sweet Hereafter is similar to Magnolia--accidents do happen--perhaps no one at fault... or perhaps all the adults had some part in it without anyone being at fault, as only the innocent children were killed.
The town had changed... tragedy has taken away the town's joy and innocence. The parents are no longer open with each other, but guarded, suspicious... in deep grief.
The lawyer is little more than an ambulance chaser, attempting to profit off their tragedy. Yet, he, too is a tragic figure who has already "lost" his daughter--
He had saved her when she was a baby, yet she has now turned away from him... and his feelings are now ambivalent towards her--he is a grief-stricken, defeated father, who vascillates between wanting to talk with his daughter on his cell phone and deciding to cut her off.
The story of the Pied Piper is interweaved between various events in the movie to give greater depth to the story. There's also a great scene in the movie between the lawyer and the garage mechanic, who has lost his two children, that shows that the theme is much broader than the literal story:
"I'm telling you this because... we've all lost our children, Mr. Ansel. They're dead to us. They kill each other in the streets. They wander comatose in shopping malls. They're paralyzed in front of televisions. Something terrible has happened that's taken our children away. It's too late. They're gone."
This movie isn't for everyone. It's a serious, layered piece with a lot of melancholy. The kind of fare that film critics can love, but Academy voters will avoid. But what it strives to accomplish is done very well. And it will stay with you long after the final scenes have appeared.
Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter is a drama of loss and internal conflict within and among the people of small town which has lost its children to a winter bus crash. The central figure is Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), a lawyer who comes to the town in the hope of putting together a lawsuit on behalf of the surviving families.
Egoyan drags bitter and emotional performances out of his excellent cast, and managed to make me fall in love with a group of characters who, on the surface, are less than appealing. Every major character in his adaptation of Russel Banks' novel is morally bifurcated and riven with doubt.
Particularly interesting from a social perspective is the treatment of Stephens' mission. I thought the lawyer's efforts to put together his suit were played even-handedly, somewhere between the greed of an ambulance-chaser cynically exploiting a local tragedy and the difficult but necessary effort to use a flawed legal system to achieve a kind of justice. But the friends who saw it with me saw Stephens strictly as a "slimeball," placed there to test and tempt the struggling townspeople. If that's the impression that most viewers get, then I'm disappointed.
Whatever your perspective on that social question, there's no denying the slow power of this film. It moves with the measured fascination of inevitability, and leaves you with a bitterness you can savor.
This was one of the saddest films I have ever seen. I do not mean that in bad way though. I have seen sad films that made me depressed and I usually disliked them because of this. The Sweet Hereafter is different though. It is a sad film without being manipulative and fake. The film brilliantly shows how people need to have revenge. After a bus accident where all but two are killed the people of the town, after a lawyer pushes them on, become obsessed with suing those responsible. Egoyan looks at how people can not accept that things happen by accident. The people of the town feel that someone has to pay for the pain they are feeling and in the end they are the ones to pay for it. The acting is excellent, especially Ian Holm. Once you become accustomed to the time shifts this is an incredibly rewarding film that you will always remember.
"The Sweet Hereafter" was arguably the best film of the 1990s and is one of my twenty favorite movies of all time. Everything comes together perfectly: fine characterization and acting (especially by Ian Holm), beautiful photography, and a hypnotic musical score featuring Armenian folk instruments. The mood is deeply elegiac but never maudlin or weepy. There's not a false note in the movie.
But don't worry; I'm not going to start screaming, "If you don't like this movie, you just don't understand it! Go back to your Hollywood pablum, you cretinous moron!" That's a stupid argument in any case, and especially so here. There are going to be some people -- including a few art-house fans -- who will find this movie slow and tedious. For me and many others, however, the film is a masterpiece.
Brutally honest, haunting, cold, austere and elliptical in the unfolding of plot and story, Atom Egoyan's restrained but powerful look at a small Canadian town ripped apart by tragedy and now invaded by a troubled lawyer (played expertly by Ian Holm) looking to make a killing off their grief is one of the most artistic portraits of the sorrow of everyday people ever conceived. The scene where Bruce Greenwood's character witnesses the school bus carrying his two children and all the hopes and dreams of a small town skid nonchalantly off an icy road and onto a frozen body of water that can't possibly hold the vehicle's weight is among the most chilling, heart-wrenching and gut-dropping scenes ever put on film. The revelations unearthed during the lawyer's investigation are both quietly disturbing and all too true to life. The intertwining tales of the townsfolk and the ultimately heartbroken lawyer are exquisitely handled by Egoyan and leave the viewer feeling the same loss as the characters. Tragedy befalls us all. Luckily, every once in awhile, so does great art.
There aren't many films that unfold with a true grace, like a bird spreading it's wings in a beautifully restrained manner. "The Sweet Hereafter" is one of them, it is an engrossing film that doesn't rely on emotional manipulation to effect it's viewer, it tells a tale like it is, and in the end, that is exactly what makes it so good. The film studies a small Canadian town in the face of tragedy, and carefully layers a series of intertwining stories involving a handful of locals who have all been impacted by the occurence. Every character seems to have a normal life at first, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that they do not. They are emotionally void people who all harbour secrets and lies, and as much as they want to believe what they're doing is right, deep down they know it's not. Intense emotions of guilt and grief run through them, but for unusual reasons. "The Sweet Hereafter" examines the things that surface after the wake of a tragedy, after the eminent shock and sorrow, how people's lives become so deteriorated and barren. The film skillfully uses different perspectives, places and time to explore the span of everything involved, asking why some things in the universe are out of our control, and if they happen for a reason. I was impressed with the film's meticulous structure, every frame is measured delicately to maximise it's power, and it works 100 percent of the time. From stark to striking, it's visuals work just as well as it's intellect. Ok, so Russell Bank's novel is a bit clearer, but Atom Egoyan's take on it is just as effective, if not more. Another thing that makes this film shine are it's performances, Sarah Polley and Ian Holme are both superb, both exude with a gentle sadness that genuinely convinces. In all, "The Sweet Hereafter" is a film that needs to be seen, it is a beautifully realised and haunting film that's virtually impossible to forget.
On the surface, this is simply the story of a small Canadian town traumatized by a school bus crash. Personal injury lawyer Ian Holm arrives on the scene in his expensive car, cellular phone at hand, ready to sign up victims for a lawsuit because, "I believe there is no such thing as an accident." But that summary really tells nothing, because this haunting tale is not about a grasping lawyer or greedy victims, but about how nothing is ever as it seems on the surface.
Director Atom Egoyan does a remarkable job with the narrative. Though at times the movie is difficult to follow because of some sequences which it is not immediately clear are flashbacks, it's worth sticking with it. The story works precisely because the chronology is chopped up to reveal the secrets each character, including the lawyer, keeps hidden, until the tragedy finally rips open the lives of everyone it touches.
Repeat viewings are definitely in order, if only because of the multiple, interwoven layers and images which are not always apparent on first viewing, and to ponder the interplay among the three strands of narrative in the movie. The movie is worthwhile, too, for Holm's portrayal of his grim, relentless character (possibly the best of his career), and Sarah Polley's remarkable performance as a kind of modern-day Greek chorus.
I am not familiar with Egoyan's other work, but I plan to be. What he has done here is transcend the Banks material. This I DO know, and it is mawkishly sentimental, aggressively raw, substituting voyeuristic pain for art.
And from this Egoyan has carved an object so complex and nuanced, so softly woven into our minds, the effect itself shocks.
The whole thing revolves around two deft tricks: one is the mystery of why the girl lies, which is not wholly because of fraternal sexual abuse, but you don't get that until the very end when what we know about Billy Ansell comes into focus. Then every element of the narrative is brought into question, as surely as "Usual Suspects" or "Cabinet of Dr Caligari" but without drawing attention to itself.
The real innovation, the real mastery, is the folding of narrative: different times, different perspectives, different truths (some reporters are lying), mirrored multiple realities, conflicting tenses all brought into apparent harmony or at least stasis. In fact the mirroring and folding and shifting is profound, but it all seems so natural one doesn't notice that the underlying physics of the world has shifted.
The fundamental problem filmmakers face is how to manage narrative. It is a far more difficult problem than is the case with novels. Experiments abound, usually with obvious mechanics and it is now an accepted genre to focus on those mechanics. Not so here: everything is in service to the direct link with our soul. There's lots of smart stuff going on, but we never notice it.
Oh yes, the acting and score are superb. Ian Holm is appropriately Shakespearean. Sarah Polley is becoming someone to watch if only because of the immensely intelligent choices she has been making. The score is particularly apt. But it is all because of the saturated consciousness Egoyan brings to the project.
Marvelous acting, excellent photography, cinematic brilliance. Those are just a few of the words, that describe this movie. It's a shame that it did not receive the attention it should have. Not even at the Academy Awards where only Egoyan received a nomination. Titanic is not half as great as The Sweet Hereafter. So go and get it... and watch it and watch it and watch it. It'll be an unforgettable experience. Because of its subtle atmosphere it seems as silent as a silent film, but its so rich in character and story development - with great actors in the lead. Don't miss it.
Though I watched the entire film, I can't say that I would sit through it again. It wasn't painful to watch, but it was slow and I was unimpressed with the character portrayal. Each character has a couple of elements each, but they remained flat. The acting seemed strained and over-dramatic (not "subtle and subdued"). I simply wasn't convinced.
Sarah Polley maintained a very cool, bitter, "serious" teen, but it was too much. There was only so much of her scowl that I could take before wondering if there was anything else to her. There are some parental issues she contends with, but they are never addressed. How do they affect her? What does that mean to their relationship? Ian Holm didn't do it for me either. His words betrayed his demeanor. The moments when he was riling up clients didn't sync with his manner in general. There was no smooth transition or feeling that he was truly that character. He spoke his lines well but I didn't feel that he acted them. He looked almost zombie-like throughout the movie (granted, it's a somber movie, but still ).
If I were to name the most convincing actor in the movie, it would be Alberta Watson. Her character, Risa, was the most heartfelt and believable.
I am judging this movie based solely on the movie. I knew only the plot summary before watching. I do not recognize any of the actors' names. I know nothing of Atom Egoyan, which makes me more confident with my reaction to the film. I'm not writing to the notoriety of the people who made up this movie, I am writing about the movie itself. I feel this distinction becomes obscured when commenters feel they have to prove their film knowledge.
How much money is your child worth? Is that a question you could ever fathom yourself asking? Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter broaches the subject with devastating results, showing the many ways in which one could lose their offspring and the pain and suffering it causes. But can that pain be tempered by a monetary settlement or a name being punished with a slap on the wrist? No, of course not. Vengeance will only feed your lust for blood; it will only make you go deeper and deeper into a descent towards hell. There comes a time where you must look at your life and feel rewarded for the time you've had and be able to move on, no matter how slow and painful that transition may be. This film is pretty much perfect on all countsstory, acting, pacing, directing, you name it. As it went on, I couldn't help but think of David Gordon Green's film Snow Angels and the comparisons of loss and renewal as thematic backbones. Interestingly enough, both of these films were my first foray into the two director's oeuvres, both possibly their most sorrowful and heartfelt, making me want to visit the rest of their works. What the similarity also does, over ten years later, is prove Egoyan himself correct. My screening of The Sweet Hereafter was followed by a Q&A with editor Susan Shipman who spoke of how just that morning Atom told her, upon revisiting the film, that "I think it holds up". He couldn't be more right; its relevance has stood the test of time.
At its core, the film is about the loss of innocence, the disintegration of the parent/child dynamic. Values had started to fall by the wayside as people began living their lives with a drive for money and power, allowing drugs and greed to destroy any semblance of compassion and morals. "We've all lost our children," says Ian Holm's Mitchell Stevens, a cutthroat lawyer looking for blood by suing a manufacturing firm for a horrible accident that really had no one's fault to blame, but also a loving father who lost his hope and dream of the idyllic family. Each and every character has lost someone dear to them, whether that be the parents of the children who perished in the school bus accident at the center of it all; the driver Dolores, (wonderfully played by Gabrielle Rose), upon losing all the children of her town and surviving; or Holm with an estranged child who has been in and out of drug abuse clinics for over a decade, possibly dying or just scamming him for money any chance she gets. Love is shown in all its many forms, from a father's incestuous relationship with his daughter, to the unencumbered joy in an adopted Indigenous son, to the worrisome mother for her learning disabled child, to the father who knows he enables his daughter's drug habit, but can't stop because there may be one time when she actually isn't lying to him. Love is a gamble that you take with your heart, and through the good and bad, it can never be a mistake.
What I will never forget, besides the heartbreaking instances and lingering close-ups of actors' faces mirroring the hurt they feel, (I loved the extreme framing in parts of just mouths, or even abstract compositions of a ferris wheel in the bottom left hand corner and sweeping aerial shots from a winding road to the wispy clouds in the sky), are the amazing performances. An early role for Canadian beauty Sarah Polley shows the burgeoning success she has found since, Ian Holm relays how good he is with a more challenging and rewarding role than the hailed bit part in Garden State, and Maury Chaykin, with commanding presence in a short scene, resonates both his humor and gossip yet also his sense of community in a warped way. There were also a couple of truly great turns from Tom McCamus and Bruce Greenwood. McCamus plays Polley's father with a very intriguing interior makeup. Truly loving his daughter, too much in fact with regards to their presumed sexual relationship, he always has a smile mixed with apparent awkwardness, unsure of his role in her life. Complicated to the end, it is his performing without words in two later pivotal scenes that shine most. As for Greenwood, he is by far my favorite. After losing his wife to cancer, he will do anything for his twins, even following their school bus each morning to wave at them. That fact put him in firsthand view of the accident and the realization that sometimes life just deals you a bad hand. The most tragic and also the most realistic of them all, it is his resolve that ultimately saves this quiet town from complete implosion.
What it all comes down to is a group of people grieving together and helping each other cope with a horrific event felt by all. Someone in the audience asked Shipman how Dolores could ever get a bus job again after Nicole lies, blaming her for the accident. What that person didn't understand is that the lie is what made it possible. By completely destroying any chance of a lawsuit against the bus makers, no one is held at fault. A new lawsuit would have to be brought up against Dolores to truly hold her accountable, so that lie then put her fate in the hands of community, who in turn absolved her of any guilt she most certainly already holds in her heart. As the overshadowing tale of "The Pied Piper" shows a hatred that only leads to more painusing his magic for revenge rather than just getting what he wanted and leavingonly Greenwood's Billy Ansel and Polley's Nicole see the light in forgiveness and honoring those lost rather than treading over their graves with more and more hate. Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest and most difficult thing to do.
I heard great things about this movie from people who usually exercise good sense. with that in mind, I kept giving the movie more tolerance than it ultimately deserves. Ian Holm was atrocious (if you thing that is blasphemy, blasphemy can be virtuous) with his either/or confusion of under acting and overacting. Why he felt compelled to be so over-dramatic is beyond me. Russel banks is a slave to pseudo intellectual stereotypes (see short story Sarah Cole) to a point that makes me understand hes just not really that bright or creative. Why did they have to make the Indian boy so angelic? Because he was pandering. And why did they have to force feed us that the hippies were not pot smokers? Atom Egoyan is a hack. I couldn't tolerate the hyper-folksy casualness of the community. Typical byproduct of overeducated outsider trying to flaunt his faux omniscience. And I have yet to mention how feebly he tried to tie tin the tale of the pied piper. the metaphor was ridiculously porous and assisted the woeful movie none whatsoever.
This movie aspires to be so much, but accomplishes nothing. This is more of a collection of vignettes than a movie. The filmmaker's attempt to tie it all together with the pied piper story seemed like a desperate ploy to add meaning to what was really a mish-mosh of almost random scenes, that are only loosely related. I had heard many great things about this movie, so my expectations were high. At times that movie seemed more like a two hour advertisement for the awful soundtrack that is pervasive throughout the film, and available for purchase according to the multitude of commercials that preceded the film. As I watched scene after scene of innuendo (secret affairs, drug use, personal demons) I kept hoping for all of this to add up. Well, it does not, at least in any significant way.
Atom Egoyan proves again and again that he knows how to shoot and pace a movie, but the man is dead on his feet directing actors. The luminous praise herein for this movie is a real mystery - unbelievable (and unnecessary) plot embellishments (a toothless rural gas station owner with a cell phone in 1996? in the middle of Nowheresville, Canada?) and actors left stranded in mid-anguished howl. When you can get a bad performance out of Ian Holm you've really accomplished something. And yet another showcase for wet-lipped, doe-eyed young girls to be dangled suggestively across the plot. I must say though, the actual incident around which the story revolves was handled beautifully.
After the excellent Exotica, Atom Egoyan misfired with this warped and uninvolving 'adaptation' of Russell Banks's novel. Using the same understated and unsentimental style he employed in Exotica, Egoyan tries to make the story of a bus tragedy in a remote snow-laden Canadian town an intellectual puzzle of sorts; yet this story of small town immorality is in dire need of a Lifetime TV movie makeover rather than a deconstruction of its own willfuly obscure narrative. This is where the film is a spectacular failure - the story is too human for Egoyan's dehumanizing narratives. Egoyan is at sea when it comes to dealing with conventional emotions; he would rather intellectualize as he did in Exotica and The Adjuster. That's why I feel the film feels forced. It's simply not deep enough for Egoyan. So what does he do, he constructs a simplistic analogy with the Pied Piper (not in the novel)that seeks to add depth to the original novel but feels too literary and self-conscious to be cinematic.
Yet this is Egoyan's most critically acclaimed film and that is baffling. Ian Holm as the lawyer Mitchell Stevens is miscast. His accent veers from English to Canadian and back again. How do we take him seriously? Sarah Polley is also as understated as ever which seems to be her style. As for the rest, they all perform to expectation which means we have to endure silences and odd, offbeat yet contrived dialog. Egoyan's detached directorial stance which served him in so well in previous film, is exposed here as a ruse. Where pathos and empathy should be invoked by the tragic scenario, the director's own penchant for obscurantism clouds any human interest.
I had to laugh or else I'd cry and not because a bus full of school children died.
I honestly can't imagine anyone being moved by this film. It is too distant to be involving, too vague to be meaningful, too slow to be engaging and too cold to be emotional. But boy, oh boy, is it funny.
The dialogue is so odd and unnatural that it becomes comical. Note the stagy way in which the detective's daughter talks. `Welcome to hard times, DADDY', `I like it when you don't believe me DADDY.' Come on, playing a drug addict is easy just watch Courtney Love and imitate. Zoe doesn't sound drugged out but she must be because she always calls from a payphone where police sirens blast in the background. And Zoe comes off well in comparison to the unintentionally hilarious stroke victim and the Otto's who put their heads together, dry-eyed and sniffle, expecting us to believe that they are crying over their long lost son named, Bear, of all things.
Bravo to the generic and lifeless Sarah Polley who musters a tiny ounce of oomph to deliver `the big lie' at the end you know, the one she said she would NEVER tell. She even attempts to glare at her father and later; if you look really close, it's the beginnings of a grin.
How ridiculous is the scene where Ian Holm recounts a spider bite story that goes absolutely NOWHERE? Why doesn't he remember Alison's father? Why does he get stuck in a CAR WASH? What is wrong with this guy?
And why is creepy Billy a saint for trying to convince Nicole's father not to sue? This anti-sue-happy town sure is unrealistic. Oh, they're Canadian. Thank explains it. Sure Ian Holm's acting is bad but does he really deserve the town's wrath for trying to gain a buck?
There is a really cheesy time transition scene, which illustrates how confused director Atom Egoyan is. He thinks the audience needs to be hand held in order to comprehend the passing of time and yet he fails to explain anything else in this perplexing tale with similar clarity.
Would people really behave the way these people do and what does it all mean anyway? Detective Stephens says that our children are all lost to us. The Pied Piper story echoes similar sentiments. Some school kids are dead while others grow up to become drug addicts and are as good as gone. One strange girl lives and because she tells a lie she is now, apparently, more pure than anyone else in town and well, that's it.
It is always wise to heed the immortal words of Radiohead don't get sentimental, it always ends up drivel. The Sweet Hereafter doesn't even have enough power to illicit the feelings that sentimentality requires. It is the worst kind of drivel -the kind that attempts to be profound, fails and stumbles into pretension, leaving nothing worthy of redemption in its wake.
If you like plodding, witless films with heavy-handed emotion and no basis in logic or physical reality -- this movie is for you. WARNING -- SPOILER AHEAD. The movie ends with (the only?) child survivor of the accident, Sarah Polley, lying to the opposing teams lawyer by telling him that the bus was going 72 miles an hour. That's it, end of movie, everyone picks up their marbles and goes home. The movie doesn't even follow it's own logic, the parent's class-action lawsuit lawyer, who would supposedly go to the ends of the earth to look for any remote/ far reaching possibility for the accident (a faulty part, weak guardrail, etc.) is felled instantly by a lie that could be refuted immediately by all other witness testimony and the police report's brake/skid mark tests that are automatically performed at any accident of this magnitude. WEAK!!!!
I was mostly angry with this film. The portrayal of the incestuous relationship between father and daughter was downright dishonest, a betrayal of what is now known and understood about the nature of abuse. Sarah Polley's character is initially seen as desirous of sexual contact with her father, with no hint of the disgust, fear and shame that such a person feels throughout these encounters. Somehow Egoyan seems to think that all he has to do is show her turning on her father late in the film and we'll all understand how wretched she really felt. Instead, she simply comes across as a manipulator, not as a young woman whose life has been virtually ruined.
Small things irritated me. Why would bush hippies in the 1990's be wearing clothes from the 70's? Same thing with the interiors of homes where we understand that people are poor. And why would the daughter of Bruce Greenwood's single parent, working-class character have Shirley Temple curls? Did he spend half and hour every morning doing her hair perfectly while forgetting to shave, clean his clothes or put in his false tooth? The correct answer is, of course, that seeing an unbearably cute child die in a bus accident is worse than seeing an ordinary one lose her life. It's so Toronto to sneer at Hollywood, then steal its worst traits.
There's an excruciatingly bad performance by one of the lesser roles in the film, which makes you wonder how Ian Holm coped. He must have mustered every possible resource as an actor to compensate for some of the cringe-worthy material and performances around him. We're supposed to despise his manipulation of the victims, to see him as a predator of some sort, yet we're relieved every time he appears because we see in him someone more alive than the dull characters by which he is surrounded.
Ever since the truly excellent Exotica, I've kept an eye on Atom Egoyan.
But unfortunately, Egoyan, so far, has proven to be one of those director's for whom everything clicks, once, and every other film tries to replicate the beauty of that one film, and fails.
The Sweet Hereafter is not bad, which is already better than any of his other films besides Exotica. You can see how Egoyan tries again to create the multi-layered psychologies of a number of characters, interweave them, and place them all in a slightly twisted, burdensome environment, and show us how they all deal with it.
But it just doesn't work.
It starts out okay. We are introduced to several characters and each has something interesting going for them, and some twist to make them interesting. But it doesn't pan out. The personalities are never given the depth they need, and subsequently I never cared about their problems.
Over the story is overlayed the tale of the Pied Piper, but this is done with Sarah Polley narrating bits of the story to us throughout the film. This might be okay, if it wasn't for the fact that she just can't act, and what we get is an amateurish reading, which almost makes me cringe. Such a bad voice-over could ruin even a good film.
We get no revelations about any characters, unlike Exotica, where every character is a little mystery that slowly unfolds. Here, the characters are totally stagnant, and nothing new happens, and nothing new about them is revealed.
In the end of Exotica, we are given a beautiful conclusion, where everything comes together on a narrative, psychological, and thematic level. There is nothing like that here. It just sort of ends. There is a slight hint as if we are supposed to find something profound in the reasons why Sarah Polley says what she says, the looks between her and her father imply this, as well as the voice-over. But it's too weak, and by this point I was too bored to bother to even think about it.
But Egoyan has an eye, and there are a few great scenes. Ian Holm manages to turn mediocre (and even bad) dialogue into something great, and especially his dialogue with his daughter's childhood friend is excellent.
Sadly, overall, the film is just a pale, pretentious, and amateurish replica of Exotica. If this had come before Exotica, I would understand , but sadly, as it comes after, I can only conclude that Egoyan is a director for whom everything magically clicked once, and will probably spend the rest of his career trying to re-attain that perfection.
'The Sweet Hereafter' concerns the tragic effect of a school bus crash on the townspeople in a rural town. Many critics were afraid to judge the film on its own merits and placed it on a pedestal where they declared such a film "off limits" to any kind of real criticism. Unconsciously the subject matter affected their judgments. Here was a film about a very delicate subject--the death of innocent children. The characters in the film (parents of the deceased children) were all shattered. It was as if criticizing the film was akin to criticizing these parents as well as any parent who had experienced such a tragic loss. But from the point of view of effective drama, the film is virtually a complete failure. Very little of it rings true at all.
Except for some very nice cinematography and an affecting musical score, 'The Sweet Hereafter' plods along at a snail's pace. The director's intent is to display the range of emotions these parents felt in the aftermath of losing their children. But what is so profound about focusing on such grief? The main character, a negligence lawyer, goes around the town convincing the parents to join in a class action lawsuit against the unspecified person or situation which caused the terrible accident. Most of the parents he sees agree to join the lawsuit (a lot of these scenes with the parents are drawn out and could have been easily condensed). The lawyer finally encounters one man who gives him a hard time. This is perhaps the most dramatic conflict that comes up during the film. But this one towns person's opposition to joining the lawsuit is completely vague. Why is he so against joining the lawsuit? Why is so angry at the lawyer? Because he feels the lawyer is profiting at the expense of the townspeople? Even so, is it really believable that he doesn't want to get to the bottom of what happened as opposed to simply dropping the whole case?
The ending of the film is even more unbelievable. The negligence lawyer never seems to have a definitive plan to try the case. He alludes to various factors that caused the accident, such as a faulty guard rail or a defective bolt inside the bus. A real negligence lawyer would never have taken such a huge case in the first place without feeling that he could be successful. It almost seems like he thinks that he uncover the 'truth' during the discovery process. A real lawyer would have already had some tangible evidence (already uncovered) that would have convinced him to go forward. Furthermore, when the young survivor lies in her deposition, stating that the bus driver was driving too fast, the seemingly smart lawyer folds up like a deck of cards and decides not to cross-examine her. A real lawyer could have made mince-meat of her but he chooses to quit the case and leave all his clients in the lurch. In real life he probably would have been hauled in front of an ethics board.
And why does the young survivor decide to lie in the end? Why does she lie knowing that she is accusing the innocent bus driver? Why does she want to case to 'go away'? Is it that she's so traumatized by the accident that she simply wants to forget about it? Everything is left so open and vague in this film that we never understand any of the characters' motivations.
Lastly, there's a lot of lame talk (mostly over the phone) between the lawyer and his drug-addicted, rebellious daughter. Seemingly there's supposed to be some kind of parallel between the lawyer's personal angst and the angst of the townspeople (this is the lawyer's defense when that one townspeople berates him before the climactic deposition scene). All this conflict between the lawyer and the daughter is gratuitous and simply does not work cinematically. We hardly ever see those two characters together and their conflict is basically a separate story which has no real place in this film.
The Sweet Hereafter basically lacks substance. It congratulates itself for displaying the raw emotion of grief but lacks a central antagonist to engage us. An examination of grief in itself is not enough to sustain an entire story. Whenever conflicts do arise in this film, they are episodic, unclearly motivated and for the most part, lacking the ring of truth. If you're strictly into atmosphere and mood, this is the film for you. But if you're looking for a strong story arc with convincing conflicts, you will not find it in 'The Sweet Hereafter'.
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.
I found this story to be noxious and morbid, showing the very worst aspects of human nature. If I want to be saddened, sickened and depressed about what our species has become, I'll pay 50c and buy a newspaper, I don't need to go to the theater and pay six bucks to spend two hours being dragged through the misery and moral decay of mankind. In my opinion, this movie isn't entertainment, or even a good didactic mirror of the contemptible behavior in which some people engage, it's two hours of mind-numbing torture. However, if one's idea of an enjoyment is watching a film about children dying, horribly, in a bus crash, followed rapidly by the appearance of leech-like, ambulance-chasing lawyers, resulting in the reduction of every moral and ethical principle to a monetarily-based bottom line, then this is the movie to watch.
This was one of the best films I have ever seen, and it was certainly the best film of 1997. (although an argument can be made for "The Ice Storm" and "The End of Violence") This was a very challenging movie, and it could be watched on many different level. (ie. it was enjoyable for people who just wanted to sit and see a movie without thinking, yet it was also very interesting for people who wanted to be part of the movie, and caught all the symbolism.) Simply put --- THE BEST MOVIE OF 1997.