The Sweet Hereafter (1997) dir. Atom Egoyan
Staring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus, Gabriella Rose
It’s July 1st, 'Canada Day! To celebrate let’s revisit one of Canada’s best films – and my personal all-time favourite, “The Sweet Hereafter”. It’s a morose story, not quite the joyous experience through which to celebrate our national day, but the type of film which has represented our country proudly on the international stage.
Eleven years after it was made the film still packs an emotional wallop. It’s heavy material to say the least – the story of a town stricken with grief after a tragic school bus accident and the laywer who desires to unite them in a class action lawsuit – but a complex and rewarding experience with enough layers to warrant multiple viewings.
The film opens introducing Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), a lawyer, who is stuck in a car wash and can’t get out. It’s one of many layers of complex metaphors and foreshadowing which Egoyan will add to the story. Stephens has arrived in a small secluded unnamed Alberta town where a tragic bus accident has recently occurred which has killed many of the town’s children. Stephens is an observant ambulance chaser who one-by-one gathers the townsfolk in a class action lawsuit against anything that could bring them a monetary settlement.
As he moves through the town we meet the grieving families who are vulnerable prey to Stephens’ emotional manipulations. Like a door-to-door salesman, Stephens is smooth and comforting, but also sly and aggressive. But Stephens’ dispassion and talent at his job has resulted in a broken relationship with his own daughter, who continually torments him with threatening cell phone calls. Not everyone is convinced a lawsuit will heal the town's pain though. Billy the mechanic sees Stephens’ ambulance chasing as a threat to the community which will divide and destroy them forever. It will be the testimony of the accident's only surviving child - a young teenage girl Nicole (Sarah Polley) - who holds the power to heal the community.
Atom Egoyan masterfully layers characters' subplots, stunning visual imagery, evocative music & sound and thematic metaphors to paint his complex film. The most obvious layer is the shifting timeline. Many scenes are played out of order – before the accident, after the accident, flashbacks and scenes of a plane ride taken by Stephens’ 2 years later. We’re never lost in the time-jumping and so without the confusion the device is never gimmicky.
One of the layers is this unnamed town where a once unified community of citizens is threatened by big city politics. Billy’s (Bruce Greenwood) conversation with Sam (Tom McCamus) before Nicole’s deposition articulates this threat. It’s a great scene. Billy describes to Sam how the lawyers will start clamoring over each other over the right to the law suit and potential winfall from the tragedy. Billy’s argument may be hypothetical, or the truth – either way it convinces an eavesdropping Nicole to do the right thing. Though Atom Egoyan chose to ‘Canadianize’ Russell Banks' American setting the film is essentially borderless. The community could stand for any small town (Canada or the U.S.) which precariously survives by the will and fortitude of its citizens.
I’d even argue there are too many ‘layers’ in the film. Sarah Polley’s voiceover is perhaps the most manipulative. Egoyan returns occasionally to Nicole’s reciting of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story. Though it emphasizes the townsfolk's conundrum between grief and anger, the film remains powerful and complex without this on-the-nose metaphor. The same might be said about Nicole's incestuous relationship with her father, which is introduced but never adequately reconciled.
“The Sweet Hereafter” was made in 1997 – a special year in cinema. Perhaps the height of the 90’s independent movement, where emotionally complex films like “Breaking the Waves”, “Secrets and Lies” broke into the mainstream. It remains one of our crowning achievements. Maybe not ideal viewing for Canada Day, but a fine entry point into the nebulous world of Canadian cinema. Enjoy.
Other related posting:
The 10th Anniversary of 1997
Listen to the bad movie-trailer voiceover in this trailer: