Some films are well crafted but lifeless. Others err by believing they can too readily make an audience care for a character just by having a traumatic situation beset him early on. Director and screenwriter Atom Egoyan's 1997 drama The Sweet Hereafter suffers from both maladies. Though not a bad film, it certainly isn't a great film, either – much less “the best film of the year” as Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan claimed.
Foremost among the film's flaws is Egoyan's disoriented narrative based on Russell Banks' novel of the same name. Since I've not read the book, I don't know to what degree the novel fathered the film's flaws, but let me explain how The Sweet Hereafter fails, at least when compared to truly great films. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]
The storyline follows the aftermath of a deadly 1995 school-bus crash in a remote Canadian mountain town. Big-city lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) pounces on the case to extract a pound of flesh for the victims. His reason, other than shyster greed, is that his daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks, Russell Banks' daughter), is a drug addict who has been using him emotionally to the point of causing the breakup of his marriage (or at least that is what's implied). Stevens is a small, Machiavellian man – the type Holm excels at, and he does a great job here; thus, the lawyer gets a number of the local bereaved families to crusade with him.
The film's narrative, I should add, is non-linear and herein lies a crucial problem – not that linearity is necessary; many films excel at non-linear structure. For instance, The Sweet Hereafter reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, released the year after and also about a father dealing with a painful outcome springing from his daughter. In Soderbergh's excellent non-linear drama, however, the narrative structure, by staying mostly with one particular character, helps the audience to empathize with a brutal Terence Stamp.
On the other hand, in The Sweet Hereafter the non-linearity gets off course because we do not stay with Stevens; the storyline jumps about to a host of characters that, after first viewing, left me wondering who they were and what relation they bore to the other characters. So, compared to The Limey, The Sweet Hereafter feels like an Afterschool Special, one whose non-linear structure ruins the dramatic core of the tale, for we already know what will happen long before it takes place on screen. More on that further on. (As an aside, The Sweet Hereafter also reminded me of Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, another well-crafted effort plagued by script and character development problems.)
Another major problem in The Sweet Hereafter is the unnecessary complication of an incestuous relationship. One of the older girls aboard the bus, Nichole Burnell (Sarah Polley, who is excellent with what little she is given), may be paralyzed for life following the accident; she has also been having an affair with her long-haired dad, Sam (Tom McCamus), who nurtures her American Idol-like fantasies of becoming a rock star. Their relationship leads to the film's final outcome, wherein the girl ultimately destroys Stevens' case by blaming the school-bus driver, Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), for speeding on an icy mountain road.
Egoyan wants us to believe – via the theme music and lighting – that Nichole's lie is somehow a good thing, for it helps prevent her father from getting a large settlement from Stevens' class-action lawsuit. But in fact, all the lie does is make Nichole come across as bad as the rest of the greedy townsfolk, for she blames an innocent woman for the accident.
Compounding matters, just as the force-fed tale of Stevens and his daughter elicits no empathy, Nichole's incestuous relationship with her father failed to move this viewer. This is partly because the girl clearly engages in the fantasy element of the “romance,” in addition to the fact that the two characters are so small a part of the tale that one has little chance to understand either the father's motivations or the daughter's receptivity to it (an attitude that feels forced).
In fact, I wondered if Nichole kyboshes the potential settlement for the town not because her father had a sexual relationship with her and refuses to own up to it, but because she is jealous of the time he is spending away from her while slavering over his potential fortune.
Nichole is also hamhandedly used as a symbol when she recites Robert Browning's poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The idea of lost children is so obvious in The Sweet Hereafter that the reason Egoyan adds this touch is bewildering, save that he bizarrely felt the loss wasn't evident enough. That begs the question of just how confident Egoyan was in Banks' original work, for the poem is only one of many elements in the film that are supposed to be significantly different from the book.
Another side story focuses – of course – on the lone man in town, Billy Ansell, who, out of principle, refuses to be part of Stevens' suit. Played by the always engaging Bruce Greenwood, Billy is a widower involved in an adulterous affair with the owner of the local motel, Risa Walker (Alberta Watson, who has an utterly pointless nude scene that is neither erotic nor in any way telling). Risa has been cheating on her lout of a husband, Wendell (Maury Chaykin), but her liaison with Billy comes out of nowhere and serves no real purpose – save to paint the town as, surprise!, a hotbed of kinky secrets.
And that takes us to another important problem with The Sweet Hereafter: what's on screen offers little insight into the characters, something that Atom Egoyan apparently tries to compensate for with Mychael Danna's score, which is far too leading, telegraphing scenes as emotional “big moments.”
On the positive side, Paul Sarossy's cinematography is superb, far above the work found in recent films such as The Motorcycle Diaries, where beautiful scenery does nothing to assist the narrative. In The Sweet Hereafter, the Canadian Rockies are not merely background frill; they're essential to the mood of the scenes, especially in the way Egoyan frames the action, e.g., he uses the weather – the fog and the natural hues of the evening – to subtly and skillfully manipulate the emotional context of a scene.
Now, going back to the issue of the film's non-linear device. Since we know what happens early on (save for a few minor details) because of Stevens' reactions and body language, there is little drama in Nichole's lie. Even worse, because we know of the crash, the scene showing the actual bus crash has little impact – there is nothing that allows us to feel the terror of the moment because we know it's coming.
Worse yet, the whole focus on guilt and loss turns precious in a monologue Stevens delivers to his daughter's best friend, about how he nearly had to save her life by cutting her throat when, as a baby, she was bitten by spiders. The whole flashback within the flashforward fails, for the lighting and dreaminess is so saccharine and so “This is the film's big moment,” that I felt embarrassed at Egoyan's cluelessness. What the filmmaker does in The Sweet Hereafter is to fetishize guilt and loss, not examine them as he claims in one of the DVD's bonus features.
Put out by New Line Films, the Sweet Hereafter DVD has an interesting commentary track by Egoyan and Russell Banks, even though Banks provides little insight outside of cheering Egoyan on. Egoyan's comments are hit and miss, e.g., at one point he praises an embarrassingly obvious car-wash sequence in which Stevens comes out of the shadows, even going through the trouble of explaining to the viewer that that moment represents a passage to light. (Banks shines a bit more in a featurette where he and Egoyan discuss both the book and the film at a university.)
The DVD also offers a strange feature in which each cast member answers two questions, a Charlie Rose interview segment with Egoyan, the poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin in illustrated mode, Canadian and American film trailers, and an isolated musical score.
Overall, The Sweet Hereafter is not a bad film – on a scale of 0-10, I'd rank it a passable 7; that's still light-years from great cinema. But failure or not, there is enough skill in many aspects of the film to make me want to explore Egoyan's other works.
That said, if The Sweet Hereafter is any indication, Egoyan may be one of those filmmakers who'd do best to rely on the screenwriting skills of others, for the film's greatest flaw is its screenplay – not just in ill-wrought scenes, but also in well-written scenes poorly placed in the film's nonlinear structure. Having read some of Russell Banks' fiction, I doubt the screenplay's flaws originated in the novel. Indeed, I found The Sweet Hereafter that rare motion picture that “gilds the lily” to the point of taking an interesting premise and killing it.
As a result of Egoyan's adaptation, The Sweet Hereafter can hardly be called profound, for a tragic subject matter does not automatically make for a deep film. Ironically, had Egoyan taken a more standard narrative route, his film would have worked better. The Sweet Hereafter may not sink to the depths of Brokeback Mountain or Crash, but nor does it rise to the heights reached by the films of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Yasujiro Ozu.
© Dan Schneider
THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997). Dir.: Atom Egoyan. Cast: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus, Gabrielle Rose, Alberta Watson, Caerthan Banks, Maury Chaykin. Scr.: Atom Egoyan; from Russell Banks' novel.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. A version of this The Sweet Hereafter review was initially posted in September 2009.