Atom Egoyan: The Sweet Hereafter (1997) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Atom Egoyan: The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

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The camera slowly pans over a plank of wood.  We go along with it, uncertain of the destination or even where we are.  A soft green light follows along our vision as shadows dance over the stiff boards.  A flute chimes in slowly, joined by a lute and soft drums, leading us to a bed.  A man and a woman lie with their child, not a one ashamed of their nakedness, sleeping comfortably among the emerald and brown of their room.

We're intruding.  This is overwhelmingly obvious from the opening frames and reinforced throughout the entire film.  However they are feeling, we should not be here observing them in so naked a moment.  For a moment everything is perfect and our mere presence means that time must continue on and their peace must come to an end.

The first time I watched The Sweet Hereafter I was ripped apart by those opening minutes.  In a short span of time Atom Egoyan had managed to point out everything that was wrong with our obsession with death and heedless voyeurism.  These are stories of people who deserve their distance, the same as anyone else, and trivializing those moments of pain into entertainment does nothing to grasp the overwhelming presence of death.  But that doesn't just trivialize that old fear of dying, it cheapens the strength that we all gain by living through such moments.

The Sweet Hereafter is Egoyan's most successful and widely-known film.  It swept the Genie's (Canadian equivalent of the Oscars) in 1997 and was voted in 2002 by the Canadian film publication Playback as the greatest Canadian film ever made.  It's also the only film to really receive any sort of American acclaim, claiming Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Actor for Ian Holm.  It was also thoroughly trounced at the box office by the very kind of film that The Sweet Hereafter espouses as an emotional hypocrisy, Titanic.

This is the anti-spectacle.  It follows characters so deep into their pain that it hurts when we can't follow them in the rest of the way, if only so that we could have the opportunity to reach our hands out and say "It's going to be ok".  But it's dangerous to assume that you know how someone else is feeling, especially in the grips of the tremendous pain that clouds the characters of The Sweet Hereafter.

The restraint of Ian Holm's performance as Mitchell is tremendous.

Egoyan pushes his bending chronology to the breaking point as he follows the twisting threads throughout town.  After the dreamy opening sequence we primarily follow Mitchell (Ian Holm) a lawyer arriving in Alaska shortly after a bus accident claimed the lives of all the children in town.

See, I'm already avoiding the central point.  All of the children died in a horrible accident that no one had control over.  There is no avoiding this fact, but there are plenty of people in town that are still looking for someone to blame.  So Mitchell hopes to rouse everyone into a class action lawsuit against...who exactly?  Who can be blamed for all this?

Off Mitchell goes on his merry quest that services his own pain.  In the meantime we get to know Nicole (Sarah Polley) in bits and pieces.  She and the bus driver Dolores (Gabrielle Rose) are the only two survivors of the bus accident.  Dolores got a neck-brace and Nicole lost her ability to walk.  Before the accident she was courting a relationship with her father Sam (Tom McCamus) that seems to be edging perilously close to incest.

How this relates to the central tragedy is revealed slowly, but the important thing to see is that the film has a clear dividing line between Mitchell and Nicole.  Ian Holm and Sarah Polley are responsible for carrying the first and second halves of the film and the other members of the town arrange themselves around the two of them accordingly.  Mitchell is reliving the pain of the earlier loss of his daughter again and again, assuming (incorrectly) that the next lawsuit will finally give a face to blame for how his daughter (a drug abuser) turned out.  Nicole carries the fate of the town on her shoulders as she is the only witness to the tragedy and can point a finger.  She must decide whether to give an outlet for their pain or allow the self-deception that anyone can be blamed to continue.

Egoyan trips throughout time in a way that even Speaking Parts barely anticipated.  The opening scene is some twenty years before the accident, scenes with Mitchell are years after the main story of the film concludes, others are centered around Nicole are months before, and even the minor characters get their own chronology.  This is no gimmick to simply toy with the audience.  Tragedy is not something that's remembered as a linear event, the slightest scent or sound can trigger a relapse into pain.  Egoyan allows the first half of the film to function like this, allowing one memory to trip into another, finding relations of sex, despair and even pain to play off of each character or curl inside themselves.

Dolores is one of the few people able to remind herself of the pain but never let it consume her.

This is doubled up with some intriguing imagery from Egoyan during the first half.  The town is so thoroughly fractured by the loss that it has no idea how to function without its children or how it should remember them.  The characters that have a more stable hold on their guilt, even while constantly reminding themselves of this fact, remember the children clearly with photographs on walls.  The ones completely lost to their pain see reflections of their children everywhere but do not have the full vision of any of them.  In artwork and photography, they appear as Siamese twins facing opposite directions.  The parents are divided in terms of how to remember their kids, and adorn their homes appropriately.

In essence, the first half is myth.  Nicole reads from The Pied Piper, flutes and lutes follow Mitchell throughout town, and Dolores' dialogue is like a rhyme in meter with the poem that Nicole reads.  "By the time I reached the bottom of Bartlett Hill road, I had half my load".  But that's the line that kills the music as she realizes all of the children are dead.  Then all of the instruments kick in full steam as the bus careens off into the ice and we enter the second half of the film.

The imagery is devoid of some of the same mythical qualities that were present in the first half.  Instead we're plunged into the reality of Nicole's situation.  The "heroics" of Mitchell look silly from the perspective of the only survivor strapped to a wheel chair.  The visuals become colder and more distant, more "realistic".  But the town has no reality and Nicole may be the only one strong enough to give a face to the pain everyone feels.

Nicole's plot thread deals with the perversion of innocence in a very direct way.  Having been seduced by her father the first thing that she hears him say as she comes to is "Don't even try to remember".  Put another way, "Don't even try to cope", "Don't even try to blame", "Don't even try to move on".  Her emotions stand in direct defiance to that.  She is bound and determined to not allow the pain of remembering to keep her from doing so.  Forgetting pain just leads to more problems than trying to remember.

Her actions and testimony I must leave for you to discover, and instead look at the remarkable restraint that Egoyan showcases in denying us the traditional release.

The Sweet Hereafter is one of the few films that deals with the reality of death entirely through the pain of its survivors.  Billy (Bruce Greenwood) is important to this.  He is the parent who witnesses the accident from the outside and is one of the only people able to fully cope with what happened.  He sees the death directly, after what happened, and is able to cope utilizing his own past experiences.  But we're spared the sight of the children's bodies, because that would be exploiting their end.  Egoyan withholds similar payoffs during many pivotal moments, the most affecting being a monologue of near-death where we see that every event of Mitchell's life is a replayment of the moment where he thought he would need to save his daughter's life by cutting her.

Duality and innocence, plus the too-frequently overlooked Sarah Polley.

Egoyan is eternally respectful of the pain death brings.  There are no obvious payoffs, just the drifting pain, the soundtrack that's meant to soothe and provide a narrative but just gives a temporary escape.  It's hard to pretend that we're eternal in the face of a tragedy of this magnitude, but we can remember that we're in the here and now.  Some may be more fortunate in a place that we can't comprehend.

This is one of the best films ever made.  I decided to hone in on the theme of grief and coping, but there are so many different ways to approach the text.  It's masterful in it's sound design, rich in it's themes of Lacanian obsession (look up some info on the Primal Signifier for a real head trip) and Oedipus Complex, is an performers showcase in restraint and decency in dealing with seemingly insurmountable pain, and a brilliant refocusing of an already excellent novel.

If there's one thing I bring from The Sweet Hereafter it's this.  We will all face pain that leaves us a shallow wreck.  The pieces can be rebuilt, not into something new, but something different.  Sometimes different is better, even if it offers a reminder of the pain that makes us who we are.

Make a choice.  Disguise the pain and live under the illusion of a another life, or face reality and accept life as it comes.

Next week is the similarly complicated Felicia's Journey.  You'll forgive me if I don't have as much to say, because this is quite the difficult film to follow-up.

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The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Written and directed by Atom Egoyan.
Based on the novel of the same name by Russell Banks.
Starring Ian Holm and Sarah Polley.

Egoyan with text

Posted by Andrew

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