by Rob Gonsalves
'The Sweet Hereafter,' the deservedly acclaimed masterpiece by Atom Egoyan, could have been bad in so many ways that it's tempting to praise it for what it isn't.It involves a schoolbus accident that takes the lives of fourteen children, yet it doesn't jerk easy tears with scenes of the kids flying kites with their parents. It centers on the attempts of a lawyer to win a settlement on behalf of the grieving parents, but there's no rousing John Grisham finale in which Matt Damon tackles the corrupt bigwigs, wins justice for the parents, and sends us out hollowly satisfied.
No, the satisfaction of The Sweet Hereafter runs deeper. Working from Russell Banks' fine, painful novel, Egoyan presents extreme misery and despair -- parents struggling to find meaning in their children's deaths -- and suggests that there may be no meaning. "There's no such thing as an accident," insists the lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), but some of the parents know better -- for instance, Billy Ansel (Bruce Greenwood), who had already lost his wife and has now lost his twin children. Billy has no illusions, and that's Egoyan's great theme: the cruelty of illusion -- faith as delusion, as a buffer against the truth.
Egoyan, like some of his fellow Canadian filmmakers (David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand), takes his time and keeps a respectful distance. His previous film, Exotica, was an intricate and interlocking puzzle that only clicked together near the end. The Sweet Hereafter is more linear, but not much more: Egoyan has become so assured a storyteller that he can juxtapose three time frames (before the accident, the aftermath, and two years later) as if shuffling a deck of cards. The sequences comment and reflect on each other, wedded by the metaphor of the Pied Piper -- Robert Browning's poem, read by Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), one of the accident's few survivors, a moody girl now in a wheelchair.
Mitchell Stephens keeps visiting the broken parents, demanding that they help him help them. He wants to get to the bottom of the tragedy; somebody along the line -- the makers of the bus or the guard rail on the road -- must have been negligent. (His real nemesis, we feel, is the big maker Himself; there's a touch of Ahab in this ambulance-chaser.) Mitchell has his own "dead child": his daughter Zoe, a runaway drug addict who badgers him over the phone for money. For him, this crusade is about wresting control out of chaos, and Ian Holm gives us a wrenching portrait of a self-contained man cracking at the seams. It's a performance of great, bitter force: Mitchell is driven to save the children of the world, and the fact that his own child is lost doesn't make him a hypocrite -- or a hero, either.
Mitchell puts his case in the lap of Nicole, played by the 18-year-old Polley (an actress to watch) with touching gravity. Nicole's anguish, we learn, goes far beyond what happened on the bus, and we see that for many in the town, such as Billy Ansel, the accident just smothered pain that was already there. You can only endure so much pain before you shut off and go numb. The Sweet Hereafter is about a town that has become comfortably numb, in contrast to Mitchell Stephens, a raw nerve raging against the injustice of life. Somewhere in the middle is Nicole, who knows the truth but also knows it can't help anybody.Numb denial and rage may be understandable responses to tragedy, Egoyan says, but how useful are they? The adults can rage and deny all they want; their children will still be just as dead.
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originally posted: 03/07/07 12:39:17