Starring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Gabrielle Rose, Alberta Watson
Rated R for Sexuality and Some Language
The word "sweet" in this film's title, "The Sweet Hereafter," is tragically ironic. There is nothing sweet about this film, or at least nothing that doesn't have a cloud of tragedy hanging over it because we know what the future holds. This is a sad story. The characters are sad, the plot is sad, even the weather seems to project an air of sadness.
"The Sweet Hereafter" is ostensibly about a bus accident that took the lives of many schoolchildren, although the crash itself is but a minor detail. Rather, the film examines how the tragedy has fundamentally altered the small, close-knit town in which it had occurred. Atom Egoyan's approach to the story, where he shows a scene and comes back later to show how that scene came to be, ensures that the aftermath is the focus of the film as opposed to the accident itself. It sounds more like "Memento" or a Tarantino flick than it actually is. Egoyan is stirring our emotions rather than our heads.
Strangely, the film bears a similarity to "Fargo." The cinematography by Paul Sarossy and score by Mychal Danna bring the 1996 Coen Brothers film to mind. Despite the fact that they are nothing alike, this actually enhances the film's success. Although "Fargo" was twisted, funny and suspenseful, it had a mournful and tragic undercurrent. Seeing and hearing "The Sweet Hereafter" brings that feeling to mind, which strengthens its power.
The acting is exceptional. Leading the pack is Ian Holm, who plays the ambulance-chasing lawyer. He claims to be a voice for the parents' rage and hurt, but he has ulterior motives that are sad rather than sinister. He is the father of a heroine junkie, and by "helping" these people, he seeks to heal his own wounds. However, he is blinded to the fact that he may be doing more harm than good. Donald Sutherland was originally cast in the role but had to back out. You wouldn't know that Holm was a last minute replacement; he makes the role his own. Easily equaling him is Sarah Polley, who plays Nicole Burnell, an aspiring musician who loses the use of her legs in the tragedy. Nicole is a complex character, whose dark secret causes her to do something horrible.
Egoyan uses "The Pied Piper" to underscore the film's themes. For the town, it's the sense of unimaginable loss that they have endured, that a town where everyone knew and loved everyone else, is now bereft of its children. For Nicole, it is the recognition of being left behind to be the only one to feel the grief first hand. As a paraplegic, she identifies with the one child with lameness who was left behind. That the Pied Piper led the children away to their deaths is beside the point for her; they get to see and experience something that she does not, and her life in a wheelchair reflects the poem and her mental state.
Sometimes Egoyan's method of telling the story are too obvious and limit our involvement. There were times when I was aware of his manipulation and artistry; the best films fully submerge it. Still, there's no denying that it's an extremely affecting piece of cinema. Even the author of the book the film was based upon, Russell Banks, said it was an improvement on his novel. Not having read it, I can't comment on that, but I will say that it's well worth seeing.