Director: Atom Egoyan
‘The Sweet Hereafter’ features a non-linear narrative, including flashbacks. In a small Canadian town, the present day. Mitchell Stevens, a slick lawyer, is called by his estranged daughter Zoe. He questions why she’s calling and tells her he doesn’t even know who she is anymore. Stevens visits a town that recently suffered the death of many of its children in a bus crash. The grieving parents are approached by Stevens, who offers to represent them to find answers, sue whoever’s responsible and obtain a large cash settlement. Although initially reluctant to pursue a legal case, Stevens visits each family in turn to persuade them to do so as the best means of coping with their grief, although one bereaved father, Billy, resists and asks Stevens to leave the community alone.
Stevens’ case rests on the testimony of 15 year old Nicole, who was seated at the front of the bus when it crashed and is now paralysed. However she accuses Dolores, the school bus driver, of driving over the speed limit, therefore causing the accident. Although Stevens and the community know she’s lying, only her father knows the reason why but he cannot say. The case collapses because of her testimony.
A multiple prize winner at Cannes (as well as the recipient of two Academy Award nominations), ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ was Egoyan’s first attempt at a mainstream picture and the first adaptation he’d made from external material, following a series of low-budget, personal films. Relocating the Russell Banks’ novel’s original setting to rural Canada, he remains otherwise faithful to the narrative, although he’s more coy about certain plot developments from the novel to allow us to make assumptions about relationships between characters and what has taken place in the past.
For instance, Banks is quite unequivocal about the incestuous abuse against Nicole by her father. Egoyan merely hints rather subtly. The first instance we see the pair together, we might easily mistake them for lovers. There’s an age gap for sure, though her father has a youthful appearance and their body language suggests something more than just a father-daughter relationship. Nicole’s sudden utterance of the word “Daddy” changes everything. This is almost the complete opposite of what happens in ‘Exotica’, when the relationship between Francis and Christina initially seemed paedophilic but actually had a more tragic and innocent dimension. It’s one of many ways in which Egoyan keeps us guessing. However, this is in keeping generally with Egoyan’s teasing approach to film making.
Like his previous ‘Exotica’, the narrative here is fractured and non-linear, told through the perspectives of Stevens, Dolores, Billy and Nicole – the latter three describing their accounts of what caused the crash, although it’s the failure of the three of them to gain a consensus that makes any legal action ultimately futile. Events occur out of sequence and what we think we see in certain scenes only becomes clear later on when other information is given. It never feels as if Egoyan’s repeating a technique used in previous films for its own sake. It’s no gimmick. Much like with ‘Exotica’, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ deals with the aftermath of tragedy and how those involved come to terms with it. The grieving process, which involves memory and recollection in order to make sense of what’s happened, is best served by Egoyan’s non-linear approach.
Motivation has always been an important feature of Egoyan’s work; why people behave the way they do. Take Mitchell Stevens. Why does he offer his services for the case? Although he announces his fee, one third of anything won, he doesn’t appear to be financially motivated. He’s not your standard Hollywood lawyer, searching for redemption after a professional career wasted. We see flashbacks to his turbulent relationship with his daughter, a homeless drug addict who claims she’s HIV positive, but it’s the flashback of the younger Stevens that is crucial – when Zoe almost died as an infant. Whether Zoe knows about the incident herself or not, it’s evident that Stevens is storing a huge amount of guilt about her near-escape from death and also at being unable to stop her going off the rails as an adult – but then Egoyan never clarifies how this happened. Maybe it’s unimportant. Stevens has lost his own child so perhaps he can empathise with the community who’ve lost theirs, but of course they don’t know this.
Egoyan indicates however that ultimately Stevens’ presence isn’t good for the facade of the community and that the promise of money won’t compensate for their loss and will only re-open old wounds. Stevens first visits the owners of a local motel who seem to have nothing good to say about anyone, although the irony is that the wife is secretly conducting an affair with Billy. There are numerous intrigues within the small town; each interviewee that Stevens meets had a point to score against someone. The big secret of course, of child abuse, cannot be told. If there is nothing that Nicole can do about this, especially now that she is paralysed and dependent on her parents (note how ominously her father asks her to “not try to remember” when she leaves hospital as if other memories might be suppressed), then she can scupper the chance of a large financial payout. That’s the best revenge she’s able to claim. Even to the end, with the accident underplayed and shown in such a matter of fact fashioned, the truth is never clear as to what really happened, although Egoyan’s devotion to withholding the truth from his audience is now his stock in trade.
‘The Sweet Hereafter’ is justly referred to as one of the finest films of the 1990s and demonstrates that Egoyan can adapt his standard themes and cinematic techniques within a more conventional, mainstream (if still low budget) framework. He brilliantly captures the communal grief of a small community, yet reveals the cracks beneath the surface and realises that gaining any kind of closure on the accident might threaten to expose what’s really there. The recurring theme of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, read by Nicole to Billy’s children in scenes prior to the accident are intriguing; do they refer to the impending loss of the children or the arrival of Stevens to save the town? It’s just one of many unexplained questions in this mature, highly successful film.