Like his countryman David Cronenberg, Egoyan is one of the few great directors working today whose films reflect not only a consistent worldview, but also a numinous mood. (Also like Cronenberg, Egoyan has set one of this year’s most memorable scenes inside of an automatic car wash.) Appealing no more strenuously to the intellect than to our innate sense for beauty, Egoyan’s films look chilly but eventually surrender warmth. They alienate, distress and confound us. What’s most miraculous is that they close up the wounds they’ve made.
The Sweet Hereafter is Egoyan’s first adaptation. The source material is Russell Banks’ highly acclaimed novel, in which four different narrators tell the story of a school bus accident and its devastating effect on a small town in upstate New York. Egoyan has relocated that small town to British Columbia, and has reworked the story into a brilliant riff on the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin (watch, just watch), but his concerns remain those of the novel. It’s about the effect of such a disaster on a community, and about the ways that grieving families can be seduced by the suggestion that somebody — in fact, anybody — is in fact responsible for that single wrenching moment when lives are taken away from us.
The devil, of sorts, whispering in this community’s ear is lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm, a fine actor who has never been finer than he is here), who wants to file a lawsuit on behalf of the parents who lost children in the accident. It’s never clear exactly who he wants to sue, although the manufacturer of the school bus is mentioned several times as a likely target. (Failing that, perhaps the agency that installed the broken guard rail is to blame.) What he makes clear is that he’s not acting to stanch the families’ grief. He’s acting, rather, to indulge their anger. And, of course, he’s acting to ensure that such a terrible thing never happens again.
If some folks are won over by his rather transparent puppetry, it doesn’t mean that Stephens is inherently evil. Clearly, he’s a man doing his job, even if his speech seems far too rehearsed for there to be any sincerity left in his motives. And, in a positively Egoyanian turn of events, we’ve learned that Stephens is mourning over his own lost child, a drug-addled girl named Zoe who has grown into post-adolescence as one of the living dead. The film opens, in fact, with an idyllic image of Stephens and his wife sleeping with their three-year-old daughter between them, bathed in warm light. When we see this image for the second time, it is as the introduction to the second of two incidents that anchor the film. The first is the actual on-screen representation of the school bus accident. And the second is Stephens’ mindscreen recollection of a terrifying morning when he found little Zoe swollen from spider bites.
But never mind. Although The Sweet Hereafter is an even more complex puzzle than Egoyan’s previous Exotica, all these disparate elements reveal themselves in similarly good time to be an essential part of this multidimensional story. Egoyan jumps backward and forward in the narrative with a clever deliberateness that reveals bits and pieces of literal and metaphorical relationships all in their own time. It verges on soap opera: we learn that Wendell’s wife Risa is having an affair with Billy the widower, whose babysitter is an aspiring rock star who’s been lured into an unwholesome relationship with … well, again, never mind. You just have to see it.
And oh, is it something to see. Paul Sarossy’s camerawork and Mychael Dynna’s music both belong on another plane entirely from this world of ours. Danna’s exotic score, lending a tranquil quietude to the anxious proceedings, layers aural texture atop Sarossy’s splendid Panavision cinematography (which will be wrecked, by the way, on videotape, so see this in a theater if you possibly can). The performers often inhabit only the very edge of this widescreen frame, their individualized reactions highlighted by the often shadowed spaces that surround them. The landscape, meanwhile, is repeatedly expressed as a richly detailed expanse of snowy ground spread beneath low clouds. Even with Sarossy on board, never before has an Egoyan film enjoyed a visual sensibility quite this keen.
The pretty pictures provide a sweeping panorama for what is, barring perhaps the very different L.A. Confidential, the year’s most assured ensemble of performers. Leading the way is Holm, whose fine performance elicits, by turns, distaste, anxiety, and sympathy. His narration of the incident involving his daughter and a pocketknife held at the ready generates more tension than a year’s worth of Hollywood “thrillers.” Also worthy of special note is the solid Bruce Greenwood, whom you may or may not recognize from Exotica, flexing his thespian muscle as gas station owner Billy Ansel, probably the most upstanding of all these characters and arguably the film’s eventual moral center. And Sarah Polley, who had a small role as Greenwood’s “babysitter” in the previous film, reprises that role here, and then some. (Her deposition in Mitchell’s case, it turns out, will be key.) Longtime Egoyan collaborator Gabrielle Rose strikes an authentically daffy note as bus driver Dolores Driscoll, and Egoyan’s wife Arsinée Khanjian (who had a memorable cameo in A Single Girl) does her part as one-half of a couple whose “hippie” sensibilities are tested by the promise of making somebody pay for the loss of their adopted child.
In the end, The Sweet Hereafter rejects that particular idea of revenge, positing instead the notion that, shunning litigation, a community can care for its own (and suggesting that a lie, if told correctly and to the right people, can be a much-needed suture on a gaping wound). If that seems an odd tack for the impetuously modern Egoyan to take, consider that his films have often played out as cautionary tales dwelling on the effects of alienation and separation — the substitution of voyeurism for sexuality, and of strained relations for companionship. Into this cycle, The Sweet Hereafter fits neatly. For all the vigorous gyrations these characters go through in coming to terms with their loss, only the stubborn Stephens seems to remain an island, having run himself dry by the story’s end.
Written and Directed by Atom Egoyan
Based on the novel by Russell Banks
Cinematography by Paul Sarossy
Edited by Susan Shipton
Starring Ian Holm, Bruce Greenwood, and Sarah Polley
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)