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Atom Egoyan's promise pays off with "The Sweet Hereafter."

By Matthew T. Everett

JANUARY 26, 1998:  Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter has generated an excitement far beyond the normal quiet buzz which accompanies even the most well-regarded independent, quirky art movies. It has appeared nearly ubiquitously on year-end top 10 lists, won the Grand Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Picture and Best Director awards at the Genies (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), and garnered a widespread distribution deal with Fine Line Features in December (conveniently enough just at the height of Oscar nomination season). All of this for a movie that has none of the sentimental appeal of The English Patient or Slingblade or The Full Monty, a movie which, in fact, has almost no sentimental appeal at all—one which is downright cold and depressing.

Egoyan's latest movie may be his most accessible yet, but it's still a demanding, harrowing film by a director reaching the top of his craft.

The Sweet Hereafter, based on a novel of the same title by Russell Banks, is an account of how people deal with loss—the loss of their children, the loss of their community, the loss of their sense of order. A school bus accident leaves 20 of a small Canadian town's children dead or injured. Following the news reports of the wreck, a big city lawyer (played by Ian Holm) barges into town to convince the parents that the accident was no accident.

The parents, overwhelmed by grief and anger but without targets for those emotions, quickly succumb to the lawyer's machinations. Their willingness to blame someone for an inexplicable tragedy is unpleasant when it is discussed not in terms of punishment and justice but in the language of lawsuits, settlements, and remuneration; it is all the more unsettling because it is so understandable. Even the crass manipulations of Holm's ambulance chaser are made sympathetic by a series of phone calls from his drug-addicted daughter; she is as lost to him as the dead children of the town are to their parents. His efforts to bring suit are not motivated simply by calculated greed but by his desire to recover a sense of order in the wake of his own insensible and inconsolable loss.

The film is not simply a story about death and grief; its themes are even larger than that, encompassing the human tendency to try to hang on to what is gone and cannot be recovered, and the difficulty of adapting to tragic circumstances. The sense of loss extends beyond the death of children (however enormous that tragedy is) to the loss of community when outsiders interfere with a natural grieving process, to the loss of youth and innocence (Sarah Polley, playing an 11-year-old girl paralyzed in the accident, gives a chillingly mature performance in that regard). It is a film about the ambiguities of trying to recover from tragedy rather than recovering what was lost, of facing death without the prospect of justice or compensation.

This paradox—that community cannot be artificially restored by an outsider's standard of accountability—is the heart of the film. Egoyan's impressive, if not entirely masterful, direction highlights the moral ambiguity. Perspective and chronology are shifting and amorphous, not fragmented but pieced together carefully in a sinewy and languorous patchwork that captures the conflicting emotions and motivations of the main characters. Holm's lawyer reminds the parents that they are grieving and angry; the film (aided by the darkly gorgeous photography of Paul Sarossy) reflects those twin emotions by contrasting the sad beauty of the Canadian winter with long, hard stares into Holm's eyes as he is tormented by his daughter over the telephone.

At times the precision is cold and perhaps too artsy, the attempt to convey loneliness descending into heavy-handedness if not outright hamminess, and the directorial flourishes (the same long shots into Holm's face) are sometimes too obvious. But some of Egoyan's touches—such as "The Pied Piper of Hamlin" being read by Polley in a voice-over as a unifying structure in the unconventional narrative thread—are the work of a bold talent reaching maturity.

Egoyan has been regarded as one of the cinema's most promising and bold talents for nearly a decade for Exotica, Speaking Parts, and The Adjuster. With The Sweet Hereafter, he has achieved a grand fulfillment of daring and imaginative ambitions. Only rarely does a film maintain a balance between artistic integrity and mainstream accessibility.

Most movies, even those with interesting themes, resolve their conflicts according to standardized formulas; some distance themselves from the multiplexes with indulgent obscurity and muddled commitment to "art." Egoyan has made one of the rare films that reconciles artistic innovation with a story's dramatic demands. And even if The Sweet Hereafter retains touches of film-school artiness that make it seem detached and distant, it's still a refreshingly (though depressingly) uncompromising gaze into places we don't want to look.

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