Lately, when watching a movie, I have started paying attention to the time and found myself wondering about my own whereabouts at that moment. 1997 was a good year of gains and losses and above all, of becoming. To some, mainly movie aficionados, this might have been the year of The Sweet Hereafter, the best movie there was. To me, both year and movie are greatly executed, multi-layered and powerful, in a soft way. Based on the book of a very talented Russel Banks, the story accomplished itself under the skillful direction of Atom Egoyan. And it goes without saying that I shall not let myself tempted into revealing all action. Instead, I shall tell you that The Sweet Hereafter comes fragmented as pain itself, in curt, intense waves that choke you to death. A kind of movie that is an unforgettable experience, one that swiftly aims at confronting your own fears or compels you to ask yourself the essential questions. Is there a line between right and wrong? Could love spring from the same wicked place as hatred? Is the mind kind or perverted? Can fate be easily maddened or does it have a mind of its own?
This is an excellent exercise in both directing and acting. A tragedy that culminates with the death of most children on a school bus is not the beginning nor the end of pain. Saving your own girl from death comes back to haunt you till the end, in the crooked way her life turned out to be. When do we stop being parents singing lullabies and turn into merciless doctors ready to perform a tracheotomy within minutes from death itself? Atom Egoyan strikes me as a man with a burden. It is not enough to be perceptive and a man of vision in directing; some stories need to go deeper, within the veins so that they could be rendered in perfect shape. Four narrative voices blend into a tale of guilt, pain, blame, sorrow, failure and survival. It is a mosaic of tiny shreds of life that at first, dance in Brownian motion, then fall into their own pieces just like the story of Robert Browning's poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin". The cunning piper who possessed the skill and the vengeful nature is Egoyan's personal manner of infusing the story with his own directing charisma and masterful vision. In Browning's world, the physically challenged are favored and the heartless, mean ones who fail to keep their promises are made to pay.
Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley) as one of the four voices, the surviving, crippled wannabe singer is our modern piper. In this little forsaken town, where people know everything about each other, adultery and incest might be easily overlooked or at least, given a touch of normality, yet breaking a promise is unforgivable. Dreams are our most valued asset; whether they come as the one we love, our children, our homes, our jobs, we are willing to go all the way to see them come true. However, dreams are also a reflection of our broken nature, of the unseen burden we carry on our backs. Incest may be unbrutally illustrated in the movie, almost in an invisible manner but its consequences upon Nicole's spirit are obvious in critical times when she ruins everybody's chance to benefit from the awful accident. She has been taken her chance at a happy life and she is consciously depriving all others -especially good old daddy- of the coveted outcome. The frail balance has been upset and the happily ever after turns into a sour sweet hereafter.
The lawyer, Mitchel Stephens (Ian Holm) is the haunted father of a drug addict daughter who
is constantly trying to find the guilty party and demand retributions. None for himself, though his battle is a rather personal one, with his own demons and past mistakes. Estranged from his daughter, tired of always trying to rescue her, Stephens would like to find a guilty party in the death of the children.The potentially faulty bolt in the school bus fails to appear and Nicole's incriminating testimony shatters the parents' chance for retaliation. And he is left with more time at his hands to salvage Zoe, his daughter, and the people of the town are given the rest of their lives to adjust to pain. Brutally honest about Zoe's addiction and his destroyed personal life, Stephens has an incredible monologue about how darkness slowly stole his life away, turning him from a once happily father and husband into a bitter, lonely man.
Apart from these two frail, yet overwhelming performances, the movie has one of the most heartbreaking scores, that of Mychael Danna's lute that simply melts away your heart by softly rendering all emotions and painful choices in characters. The narrative is layered, deprived of chronology and the cracks in between the slices of sorrowful bits of truth are filled with great music, turning The Sweet Hereafter into a masterpiece.