Atom Egoyan crafted a world with a gaping black hole in the centre, pulling characters into a swirling, self-destructive vortex, while simultaneously affirming the redemptive power of love
THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997)
Directed by: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Tom McCamus, Bruce Greenwood, Arsinée Khanjian, Gabrielle Rose, Earl Pastko, Stephanie Morgenstern and Maury Chaykin.
Running time: 112 minutes
A film that touches on the essence of love by throwing us into the abyss of loss, The Sweet Hereafter marks the apex of the English-Canadian film tradition as it navigates the empty space left in the wake of tragedy with a gentle, but unsentimental eye.
Based on the novel by Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter focuses on a school bus tragedy in a small town, and the big city lawyer who drives into town looking to point the finger of blame. Ian Holm plays Mitchell Stephens, a slimy litigator who makes a living off of other people’s pain with his empty promise of justice. Heartbroken and eager to make sense of what’s happened, the tightly knit community lets him in, but it is Mitchell — not some outside villain — who is finally pushed into an emotional confession.
Structured as a collection of fragmented memories from different perspectives, Egoyan travels back and forth through time as though he were dragging a pencil over a grave marker, slowly rubbing the surface to reveal the moment when everything changed: the moment when a school bus hit a patch of ice, veered off the road, and landed in the middle of a frozen lake where it sat, unscathed, for a brief second before the white ice gave way, and the black water swallowed it whole.
Egoyan shows the image once, but it resonates throughout the entire film as every character goes back to that moment, haunted by the memory of what they lost: their children, who climbed aboard and never came back. Only the school bus driver and a teenage girl survive, but they are broken people — emotionally, physically and spiritually.
As the parents and the survivors struggle to carry on in this changed world, Mitchell finds himself haunted by his own emotional baggage. His drug-addicted daughter is constantly calling him on his cell phone, asking him for money. At first, Mitchell is cool. Afraid to throw any more hope and love into the pit of her addiction, but desperate to revisit the days when he would have done anything to save her life, Mitchell is trapped in a cage of his own creation — and the flood of emotion is beginning to seep through the walls.
Using images, music and landscape to articulate the things that words simply cannot express, Egoyan pushes the audience into a cool, quiet world where love bleeds into emptiness, and we can do little but watch — and weep — for the broken souls left behind.
One of those rare movies where performance, place and story all come together without excessive directorial force or pretense, The Sweet Hereafer is quite simply, my idea of a perfect film.
– Katherine Monk