The Sweet Hereafter screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema as part of our Good Canadian Cinema? series on Thursday December 2nd at 7:00pm.
Special thanks are in order to my good friend Jenna Hossack for helping me put this and the forthcoming Naked Lunch blogs together while under large amounts of stress.
Growing up, you generally don't gravitate towards movies that depress you in any way. Teenagers generally don't want to watch a film about the deaths of children, incest, and how towns are torn apart by tragedy. I know I wasn't one of those teenagers, but for some reason The Sweet Hereafter shook me to my very core. I have very rarely had a more visceral reaction to a film prior to that. In fact, The Sweet Hereafter is a film that solidified my thoughts of being a writer or working in film. Apparently, I am not alone. A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes shows I am not alone amongst critics. The Sweet Hereafter has a perfect 100% approval rating (based on a little over 50 reviews) on the aggregate website which even the most dubious doubters would have to admit is pretty impressive. The film was the second highest vote getter in our Good Canadian Cinema poll.
In Atom Egoyan's meditation on loss (based on a book by Russell Banks that took place in upstate New York, that was based on a real life event that happened in Alton, Texas) a small British Columbia town is rocked when every child in the town, save for one (Sarah Polley) is tragically killed in a school bus accident. Into their grieving lives comes Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), a lawyer encouraging the surviving parents to join in a class action lawsuit against some defendants with big pockets. But Mitchell has dark familial secrets of his own and the one surviving girl, now a paraplegic might not be willing to bend the truth to Mitchell's will. On top of that, she is also hiding a devastating secret of her own.
Egoyan, in what I believe is hands down his best film, uses a uniquely Canadian landscape to heighten the feeling of isolation these parents must be feeling (portrayed by an all star cast including Bruce Greenwood, Maury Chaykin, and Tom McCamus). The setting is bright because of the abundance of snow, but things could not possibly be bleaker. It is interesting to note the use of snow in a bleak film. Snow is a very reflective surface that tends to bring a lot of things to light even in the darkest parts of the day.
The snow and the remote location also speaks to the nature of silence, both in nature and such a close knit community. The Sweet Hereafter gives the viewer a real presence in the absence of sound; a place where silence and the impossibility of speech leads to awkward silences that reach across the landscape and the emotional divide. This is a town full of people robbed of the moment when their children could even be old enough to ignore and abandon their families. The grief they were deep down expecting is replaced by one completely unfathomable and unseen, even by the viewer. The bus crash is shown inter-cut with Mitchell telling a story of a black widow spider bite in one of the eeriest and most unsettling moments in film history.
Another interesting parallel is that of the old nursery rhyme The Pied Piper of Hamlin. Sarah Polley, playing Nicole in one of her best performances, is quite literally the character of the rhyme by virtue of her survival; a key element when you consider that she sing songs the same poem to a child in the film. It stands as a testament to the secret she is keeping and to the accident itself. You could also look at Mitchell as a similar character, leading the parents of the town blindly in a lawsuit that will not only bring their children back, but the money from which might bring more harm than good.
The Sweet Hereafter is quite possibly one of the most depressing films I have ever seen in my life and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a film of real drama and real emotion; not tarted up in any way with any sort of fake sentiment. It is brutally honest, undeniably compelling and eminently watchable despite it all. It is a film of such complexity, where the beautiful mixes openly with the ugly, that I wish I had it in me to make something with half the power of this film. I say this rarely, but The Sweet Hereafter is truly a must see.