The Sweet Hereafter: a fragmented film labouring under too many issues about loss and betrayal of children

Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997)

It won quite a few Best Film and Director awards and was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay Oscars but I found Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” overly long and laboured for what it is and what it seeks to do. An ambulance-chasing lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), lobs into a small rural community grieving over the loss of several children in a school-bus accident; Stephens aims to round up enough willing applicants to launch a class action litigation suit alleging negligence against the bus company and the school insurance board. He manages to rope in a few people but the lawsuit threatens to open raw emotions and other wounds afresh among the townsfolk and set them against one another. Two significant eye-witnesses, Billy (Bruce Greenwood) and Nicole (Sarah Polley), are unwilling to testify; Nicole in particular, despite her singer-songwriter career having been derailed by the accident, suffers from survivor guilt, resents her parents’ interest in a huge cash payout to compensate for her no longer being a money-pot, and refuses to have anything to do with the suit. While rounding up potential litigants, Stephens must also deal with his personal problems, most of which revolve around his guilt over the upbringing of his young daughter Zoe who as an adult has become a drug addict and who fears she has contracted an HIV infection after she is rejected as a blood donor.

The lonely and melancholy beauty of the harsh mountain landscape in winter, where the action takes place, provides an ideal setting for the tragedy that unfolds leisurely through flashback scenes interspersed among Stephens’ visits to the locals and his own narrative of loss, tragedy, despair and guilt. At the heart of the film is the issue of responsibility and blame, how people cope with loss, and how it has the potential to rend a community apart or bring people closer. One underlying theme is how people as individuals and as a collective and through their institutions have failed their children and themselves time and again; there is also a related theme of child sexual abuse that raises its ugly head at the film’s climax. Human institutions such as an adversarial legal system or organised religion can be dangers in this respect. Stephens, running away from his own guilt over Zoe, pours his anger at himself into posing as a crusader for social justice on behalf of the town but is ultimately thwarted by the young girl Nicole when she is called to give a witness statement.

The acting is good and restrained but I wonder if Egoyan errs on featuring too many close-ups of people about to break down and cry, as if seeing one or two almost weepy people isn’t enough to turn on viewers’ own lachrymal spigots. The blues-rock music soundtrack can be too intrusive at times, trying to stress the intense emotional aspects of the plot and the issues it raises. At one point the film appears to aspire to soap opera status by featuring two people having an affair that goes nowhere. For an otherwise low-key film, there is too much emotion and not enough questing as to how people should cope when a tragic accident that could be no-one and everyone’s fault occurs and whether it is right to apportion blame and responsibility arbitrarily and to pursue justice in a way that exploits and manipulates people’s emotions with the potential to create conflicts, grievances and problems that need never exist.

In the figure of Stephens himself, Egoyan could have raised issues about how running away from guilt and not confronting it directly but channelling it into other people’s affairs may cause friction and serious on-going conflict that escalates further. The structure of the film in which various narratives are interwoven and end up open-ended is problematic in that it offers very feeble hope with most characters left to fumble through personal demons. At the very least, we could have had some closure in which Stephens resolves (perhaps yet again after so many other failures of courage) to meet his daughter and get help and counselling for her. The climax of the film in which the lawsuit collapses due to an underlying incest issue that two family members keep hushed up jars horribly with the film’s ending in which one of the two appears as an angel of forgiveness and redemption … in a period before the bus accident!

Disappointingly the mountain landscape is a passive bystander in the film: its stunning vistas and the soft light of sun that glints on ice and snow could be the very thing that inspires hope in the community to do better by its children.

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