THE SWEET HEREAFTER
Directed by Atom Egoyan
Written by Egoyan, based on the novel by Russell Banks
Starring Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus and Gabrielle Rose
Distributed by Fine Line Features
Warning: spoilers ahead.
From FAMILY VIEWING through CALENDAR, Atom Egoyan has offered us status reports on the society of the spectacle and its house emotions (alienation, anomie, more alienation.) Lately, he seems to have put down the video camera, shut off the VCR and decided to deal directly with the material of melodrama. It's apparent now that CALENDAR was a turning point: a diagnosis of the emotional blockage that his earlier films both describe and signify. Egoyan has always been fascinated by obsessive rituals and cycles, but EXOTICA ends by breaking out of them. THE SWEET HEREAFTER it feels like an attempt to simultaneously grow as an artist and reach a wider audience. The former mission, at least, is a success.
THE SWEET HEREAFTER revolves around a bus accident (not depicted until halfway through) in which all of the children in a small town have died. (Russell Banks' novel is set in upstate New York, and although the film was shot in British Columbia, several details suggest that it's meant to take place in the U.S.) Immediately after the accident, lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) arrives to entice the townspeople into a lawsuit. He searches for potential clients among the Ottos, a couple of "hippie" artists (Arisneé Khanijan and Earl Pastko), the Walkers, who own the motel where he's staying (Maury Chaikin and Alberta Watson), bus driver Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose) and widowed gas station owner Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), who witnessed the accident. Simultaneously, he receives a series of desperate calls from his drug-addicted daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks), whose life story he recalls when he runs into an old friend of hers on a plane.
The relative emotional directness of THE SWEET HEREAFTER makes it potentially more accessible than any other Egoyan film, but it's not a compromise. Far from it. Even more than EXOTICA, its complex narrative requires an active spectator. One key subplot, involving a sexual relationship between Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), a teenage babysitter whose dreams of being a rock singer are destroyed when she's paralyzed in the accident, and her father Sam (Tom McCamus), seems designed to be overlooked. Nicole refers to him as "Daddy" in their first scene together, but given how he behaves towards her, he appears to be an older boyfriend. We're not reminded again that he's her father until more halfway through the film. Lately, incest has become every screenwriter's favorite pathology, handy for covering up lapses in characterization and story structure. It's rare to see it treated in such a subtle manner. Ian Holm's portrayal of Mitchell Stephens is similarly nuanced. In a Hollywood film, he'd either be a heroic crusader or a hissable, money-grubbing villain. Holm gives him a certain magnetism, as well as suggesting that Mitchell really believes he can cure the town's pain by suing someone. (Anyone, really. At the start of the trip, the suit doesn't even have a target.) He's certainly a con man (and a man with a vampiric attraction towards other people's pain), but he may be completely sincere .
After THE SWEET HEREAFTER's New York Film Festival press screening, a spectator complained to Egoyan, "Your films are about alienation, but it's never seen in a political or social context." I don't completely agree - he's always been canny about the class differences between image-makers and image-consumers - but I wasn't being entirely accurate when I said that Egoyan offered status reports on the society on the spectacle. So far, his films have depicted a society consisting entirely of clumps of isolated, obsessive individuals (and broken or unhappy families, at best.) However, there's a palpable longing for community beneath their surface, as well as a deep skepticism about the possibility of achieving it.
This longing is central to THE SWEET HEREAFTER, and it's articulated most clearly by Billy, the only character who's perceptive and angry enough to tell Mitchell off. But the film is never quite convincing as a portrait of a community, rather than a town. Egoyan's widescreen framing tends to emphasize distance and isolation - physical distance, especially, with tiny people standing in the center or the edges of snowy landscapes. For all his talk, Billy isn't the one who sabotages the lawsuit; in the end, Nicole ruins Mitchell's case by claiming that Dolores Driscoll was speeding. However, she seems to do so as much for personal reasons, especially a desire to get back at her father, as out of a sense of responsibility to the town. Even if she does manage to "empower" herself, the ending of THE SWEET HEREAFTER is far less cathartic than the ending of EXOTICA, which suggested a new beginning and possibly a working through of grief. Here, the grief has just begun, and it represents a malaise that extends far beyond the town's borders.