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The experience of watching The Sweet Hereafter is sort of like walking on thin ice. Director Atom Egoyan has created the overwhelming sense of the fragility of life, that life is delicate and easily ripped away from us. Egoyan takes us on a journey through a landscape of devastated characters who struggle to hang onto their sanity amid the overwhelming force of events that threaten to rip their lives apart.
Most notable about Egoyan 's approach is the way he uses silences, pregnant pauses, and other moments where nothing much is happening on the screen. He doesn't shy away from the normal, the mundane, and in the process, this close attention to the quiet moments of life creates an overwhelming sense of invasion, that we are seeing right into the souls of the characters, right into the heart of their pain and confusion. Unlike the usual Hollywood approach of eliminating the pregnant pauses except for comedic effect or for isolated dramatic effect, Egoyan has created a movie that communicates through its silences. In these moments that conventional Hollywood filmmaking would typically avoid, we experience just how distraught the characters are. Unlike a Steven Spielberg production, where the music tends to swell at all the crucial scenes, cueing us that we're seeing something important, Egoyan lets the scenes speak for themselves, while the extreme melancholia of the lead characters becomes horribly heartbreaking, as we see right into the most private and privileged moments in their lives.
Winner of the Grand Prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, The Sweet Hereafter is about how people cope in the face of a cataclysmic event that defies explanation. As did Egoyan's previous film, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter deals with grief and loss and how different people cope in different ways. These issues are raised when a school bus from the rural town of Sam Dent, British Columbia crashes through a guard rail and into a frozen lake. Fourteen children on board are killed. In the wake of the accident, a lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) arrives in town, swearing retribution for the deaths. However, as the story unfolds, we discover that Stephens is still suffering from the loss of his own daughter to drugs, and he has never reconciled his own feelings. Wrapped in his own anger and frustration, he has become emotionally frozen, but now he must convince the townspeople that it is their duty to find someone at fault for the accident. "There is no such thing as an accident," he says. Some "corrupt" organization is responsible for the accident through "cost-cutting" measures, he argues. Blame must be assigned and the guilty must pay. "It's up to me to ensure moral responsibility in society." The movie unfolds as Stephens begins interviewing the grieving parents, looking for "good, upstanding citizens" to become part of the class-action suit. In the process, as Stephens tries to build a cohesive court case, the lives of the townspeople begin to disintegrate.
Adapted by Egoyan from a novel by Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter echoes the structure of an epic Western. Stephens rides into the rural community of big skies and wide open streets, and he tries to become their hero, their savior. But the retribution that he offers works like a double-edged sword that damages the community. The most amazing thing about The Sweet Hereafter is how deftly Egoyan avoids sentimentality. Instead of hyping the already emotionally charged scenes, Egoyan allows the focus to fall on his fine cast of actors. Many members of the cast are veterans of previous Egoyan movies, including Sarah Polley and Bruce Greenwood (both of Exotica) and Gabrielle Rose and Arsinee Khanjian (both of Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, and The Adjuster). Also starring are Alberta Watson (who played the mother in Spanking the Monkey) and Tom McManus (who won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent of an Oscar, for his performance in I Love a Man in Uniform). However, much of the success of the movie resides on the shoulders of Ian Holm and he provides a stunning performance. He gives his character an icy but chameleon-like ability to adapt to the needs of his clients. But beneath the cool, controlled exterior, Holm allows anger and frustration and confusion to occasionally burn through. Holm delivers one of the year's very finest performances, a virtual lock on an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
With his every film, Atom Egoyan takes another step forward toward becoming one of the major filmmakers. The Sweet Hereafter pushes him to very near the front of the pack. This is an incredible film of raw, undiluted emotion that will stay with you for long after the movie is over.
[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]