"There's nothing simple about representing a human being."
- Atom Egoyan
Former University of Toronto International Relations alumnus Atom Egoyan is Canada's finest film-maker. He began his directing career in 1979 with a black-and-white 16mm short entitled "Howard in Particular", and as the years passed, he moved onto bigger and better projects, including half-hour made-for-television dramas (including ones for American Network television-- episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "The Twilight Zone"), made-for-television movies for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and several feature-films that have been critically-acclaimed and received at Cannes.
Maybe the guardrail wasn't strong enough.
You believe that?
I have to.
"The Sweet Hereafter", Egoyan's follow-up to "Exotica", received top honors at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and was the opening gala presentation for the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival. In a similar vein to his previous efforts, TSH is a theme-driven exploration into the consequences of tragedy, the guilt of those who survive, and the basic human need to comprehend and assign blame.
That's why I'm here. To give your anger a voice. There is no such thing as an accident.
Based on the novel by Russell Banks, TSH is a temporal and spatial game of hopscotch that takes the audience through the emotional beats of the aftermath of a fatal bus crash. The town of Sam Dent, British Columbia is dealing with the loss of its children, and Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) is a lawyer attempting to convince the townspeople to file a class action suit for compensation. Much like the narrative style of "Exotica", Egoyan teases the audience, gradually exposing the emotional turmoil and the tangled web of connections between the characters. However, unlike his more recent films, the characters here are not eccentric figures idling in darkened rooms in search of validating sexual experiences-- no, this time they are normal people. In a series of poignant monologues, the pain of those affected by the plunge of the school bus into a frozen river, directly and indirectly, is laid bare. Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), the bus driver, is unable to forgive herself for not being able to stop the bus in time. Wanda Otto (Egoyan's wife Arsinée Khanjian) lost her adopted Indian son in the crash and wants anyone connected to the crash (the manufacturer of the bus, the school board, etc.) to be punished. Billy Ansel (Bruce Greenwood, the tortured Revenue Canada auditor from "Exotica") was in his truck, following the bus, and witnessed it plunge into the river-- he wants to run Stephens out of town for pushing the lawsuit which he feels would prolong the anguish. And finally, there is Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley, grown up since her role as the babysitter in "Exotica"), a young teenage rock singer-wannabe that finds herself the only passenger that survived, albeit confined to a wheelchair. Her testimony is critical to the success of the lawsuit, but she has her own reasons to misrepresent the truth.
I spent ten years worrying about what would happen if I didn't send
Stephens must also deal with a tragedy of his own-- Zoe, his drug-addicted daughter who calls him sporadically from pay telephones, asking for money. She tells him that it's for a plane ticket to come home; he goes to the airport to meet her, but she never arrives. This time, it seems as though it is for real, and he has no choice but to fly out to bring her home. Like the grieving parents in Sam Dent, Stephens will do anything for his child, a sentiment strikingly visualized in a moving flashback of an incident in Zoe's infancy.
Why can't you talk to me Daddy?
I need to know what state you're in... so I know how to talk to you.
Every narrative element at Egoyan's disposal is impeccably arranged. The lighting, leisurely tracking shots, the deliberate juxtaposition of scenes, and the eerie soundtrack combine to create a beautiful piece of cinematic literature. For example, the state of emotional paralysis that many of the characters find themselves trapped in is brilliantly expressed in an opening sequence where Stephens finds himself stuck in the middle of a car wash.
I will reveal who it was that did not do their job.
However, one problem with theme-driven films, which Egoyan's films are, is the lack of obvious structure, discernible plot, and tidy resolution. Everything that happens, the placement of the scenes, the dialogue, and even the occupations of the characters are manifestations of the underlying thesis, and this can be frustrating to someone who is unaccustomed to this kind of storytelling. TSH also suffers from this, with Egoyan's indulgences sending the film off on tangents at times and some unresolved issues by the film's end. But then again, that is the inherent challenge of his films and why they always demand more than one viewing to grasp a true appreciation of their meaning.
Is that what I'm supposed to believe, Mr. Stephens-- that you know what's best for us?
Ian Holm and Sarah Polley give brilliant stand-out performances. Ian Holm, building on forty-three years of experience on the stage and screen, brings a demeanor of authenticity to his role as the pained and weary lawyer. Sarah Polley not only shows off her matured acting abilities, but she also shows off her vocal skills in ethereal acoustic renditions of several songs, including classic CanCon: Jane Siberry's "One More Color" and The Tragically Hip's "Courage".
Courage, my word,
It didn't come, it doesn't matter.
Courage, couldn't come at a worse time.
"The Sweet Hereafter" is a an emotionally-resonant film that provides further evidence of director Atom Egoyan's ability to speak to the frailty within all of us, so as not to turn away in the face of catastrophic change and to find the strength that comes in acceptance.
But it was all in vain,
No one ever heard or saw those children again.
The people of Hamelin had scoured each hill and dale,
They had searched the whole region, but it was all to no avail.
Where had they been taken? Where did they go?
This no one will ever know.