Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan’s most ambitious work to date, “The Sweet Hereafter” is a rich, complex meditation on the impact of a terrible tragedy on a small town. While it retains the unconventional narrative style of his earlier pics, this first adaptation by Egoyan of someone else’s work carries more emotional weight than anything else he has directed. Still, the nonlinear storytelling techniques and troublesome central character and performance will make the film problematic for mainstream audiences. Pic will likely perform robustly in territories where the director is well-known, such as Canada and France, but Fine Line will have to work hard to introduce Egoyan to a wider public in the U.S.
Working from a memorable novel by Russell Banks, Egoyan shies away from the obvious tearjerker elements in this story of a bus crash that kills 14 children, and the film’s power comes from his skillful ability to keep the anger and sorrow simmering just below the surface of the tale.
“The Sweet Hereafter” chronicles the heart-wrenching fallout on the town of Sam Dent, B.C., after the bus accident. In the novel, several key characters narrate their own chapters, a structure that could have been difficult to render cinematically. The narrative still jumps around among various residents of the town, but Egoyan has turned Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) into the central character. He’s a big-city lawyer who arrives to try to mount a class-action suit targeting the city authorities, the bus manufacturer and anyone else who can be made to pay for the accident.
The other significant alteration to Banks’ novel is the use of the myth of the Pied Piper as the central metaphor for the community’s failure to provide for the safety and well-being of its children.
From the first scene, it is clear that Stephens has also lost a child — in his case, to drugs. His strung-out daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks, Russell Banks’ daughter), keeps calling him on his cell phone throughout the story, and the main story of the bus-crash aftermath is intercut with a sequence set two years later on an airplane flight, during which a morose Stephens tells someone the pathetic story of Zoe’s drug-addled life.
In the novel, Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), one of the survivors of the crash, is filled with anger provoked by a childhood torn apart by a sexually abusive father, Sam Burnell (Tom McCamus); in a change that’s bound to be controversial, Egoyan’s script turns the father into a more sympathetic person, and the discreet incest scene implies that it is a consensual relationship.
The one man staunchly opposed to Stephens’ efforts is Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), a world-weary widower who lost his two kids in the disaster. He has an angry latenight confrontation with the lawyer and later goes to visit the Burnells in an effort to dissuade them from pursuing the legal crusade.
The first parents to sign up with Stephens are Wendell (Maury Chaykin) and Risa Walker (Alberta Watson), who run the local motel and, in an early scene, kickstart Stephens’ research by giving him a rundown of who’s who in Sam Dent. One of the few funny moments comes courtesy of Wendell’s scathing comments on the weaknesses of his neighbors. Risa is having an affair with Billy Ansell, and they meet regularly in the motel (in a subplot reminiscent of Egoyan’s “The Adjuster”).
Images of the yellow bus disappearing into the ice-covered lake off the side of the road come about an hour into the action, and the story leaps from pre-crash to post-crash to two years later with dizzying frequency.
It is a testament to Egoyan’s sophistication as a scripter and director that the dramatic force of the film is not dampened by the structure. The climactic scene with Nicole, her father and Stephens, in which the teenager recounts her memories of the accident in a legal deposition, is stirring precisely because the emotions are not fully articulated, just as her motivations for testifying as she does are left unstated. The pic grapples with all kinds of tough issues — how to deal with the loss of family and friends, profiting from tragedy, the disappearance of community — and one of its strengths is that it provides no easy answers. All the characters are wading in the same morally ambiguous waters.
If there is a problem, it is that there is some difficulty identifying with Holm’s understated turn as Stephens. And his relationship with his junkie daughter is one of the few less-than-original strands in the pic. Stephens spends much of the pic holding in his true feelings, and Holm’s clipped line delivery makes for a claustrophobic perf.
Polley and McCamus are excellent, conveying a wide emotional range with minimal dialogue. Greenwood, who also starred in Egoyan’s “Exotica,” is a real presence as Ansell, packing all his scenes with resigned fury.
“Hereafter” has few of the visual quirks for which Egoyan is known, but, as always, it is shot with no small amount of style. Lenser Paul Sarossy contrasts tight interiors with wide, flowing outdoor shots, including a number of sweeping aerial sequences, most notably in the scenes showing the bus rolling down the snowy road that fateful morning. The wintry, mountainous B.C. landscape is photographed lovingly, and the cold but beautiful vistas serve as an appropriate backdrop to the tragic tale.
Composer Mychael Danna uses a wide variety of instruments, including lutes, recorders and cello, to create a strange tapestry that sounds like a mournful, acoustic take on South American folk music. Canadian rock band Tragically Hip’s song “Courage” plays a central role in the pic: The group’s original version plays during the lead-up to the finale, and an ethereal, folky rendition is sung by Polley over the closing credits.