REVIEW: The Sweet Hereafter [1997]

“Wiggle your noses and have fun”


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 counts—story, 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 Shipton 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.

The insight from Shipton was fantastic; it is wonderful to hear about a piece of art from someone who helped create it. She spoke about how this was the most restructured work that the two filmmakers collaborated on, changing so much from first draft that the final draft was actually “written” in the cutting room. Always different in ways from the original novel, especially the ending Shipton says, it continued to evolve to find its own voice, while still “thrilling” writer Russell Banks when he screened a rough copy upon a set visit. Their first workprint, for example, cut to the structure of the shooting script, actually began with Sarah Polley’s Nicole in the hospital, complete with voiceover, setting the scene for a film from her perspective. Almost immediately, Shipton and Egoyan decided that this would be a horrible idea, pigeonholing the film on a linear path and stifling the depth and scope surrounding Nicole’s story. As a result, the final cut allows its multiple narratives to be interweaved through time, showing us flashbacks, the present, and future events all at once. The Sweet Hereafter then becomes a journey into a sleepy little country town and the tragedy that changes it forever. A tragedy that risked breaking apart the humanity they held for each other, almost letting an outsider in to tell them what is right and what is wrong, rather than a tale told from one character’s perspective.

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.

Confronting the Burnells, (Polley’s family), Greenwood attempts to have them drop the lawsuit, planting the seed of what a misguided grab for cash will do to them in young Nicole’s mind. As David Hemblen’s Abbott, (Dolores’ husband), stutters out due to a stroke, a jury of twelve strangers won’t absolve anyone of fault, it will be a jury of one’s community, those that know the everyday life and workings of the people around them. It is not the matter of a fancy lawyer coming down and planting ideas of negligence from faceless businesses and their bottom lines, nor of the woman each parent entrusted their children to each morning as Dolores had done it for years. 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 Shipton 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 pain—using his magic for revenge rather than just getting what he wanted and leaving—only 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.

The Sweet Hereafter 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★


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