DVD Review Of The Sweet Hereafter
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/25/09
Some films are well crafted but lifeless. Others err by believing they can too readily make an audience care for a character just by having a traumatic situation beset him early on. The Sweet Hereafter, a 1997 film by Canadian director and screenwriter Atom Egoyan, suffers from both maladies. It’s not a bad film, but it certainly is not a great film, much less ‘the best film of the year,’ as its DVD cover proclaims Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan claimed, for it suffers from some other minor flaws, as well; primarily an anomic screenplay by Egoyan, who adapted the novel of the same name by Russell Banks.
To what degree the novel fathered the flaws of the film I do not know, as I’ve not read the book, but let me enumerate how the film fails, at least relative to great films. The film follows the aftermath of a 1995 schoolbus crash that killed many of the children in a remote Canadian mountain town. A big city lawyer named Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) pounces on the case to extract a pound of flesh for the victims. His reason, other than shyster greed, is that his daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks, the novelist’s daughter), is a drug addict who has been using him emotionally, to the point of causing the breakup of his marriage (or at least that is implied). He’s a small Machiavellian man (the type Holm excels at, and does a great job here) and he gets a number of the local families who lost children to crusade with him.
The film is non-linear, and herein lies a major problem. Not that linearity is necessary, for many films excel at non-linear structure. The film that this most reminded me of was Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, made a year after this film, also about a father dealing with a painful outcome springing from his daughter. That film was also non-linear, but a great film, for the non-linearity aided the audience empathy with the brutal character played by Terence Stamp, and it also stayed mostly with that character, whereas this film gets off course because we do not stay with Stevens, but jump about to a host of characters who, after first viewing, we are left wondering who they are and what relation do they bear to the other characters. Compared to The Limey, The Sweet Hereafter is an old television Afterschool Special as cinema. Another film this film relates to is Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, which similarly was a solid film, but one plagued by script and character development problems.
Then there is the unnecessary complication of a PC theme- incest, in which one of the older girls, Nichole Burnell (Sarah Polley, who is excellent with what little she is given), hurt in the crash- to the point of possibly being paralyzed for life, is being incested by her long haired dad, Sam (Tom McCamus), who nurtures her American Idol like fantasies of becoming a rock star. This leads to the denouement of the film, wherein the girl ultimately destroys Stevens’ case by lying about the crash being an accident, and blames the schoolbus driver, Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), for speeding on an icy mountain road. The film leads us to believe- via the theme music and lighting, that this lie is somehow a good thing, for it helps prevent her dad from getting a large settlement from the class action lawsuit Stevens is deposing her for. But, all it does is make her as bad as the rest of the greedy townsfolk, for she blames an innocent woman for the accident.
Yet, just as the force-fed tale of Stevens and his daughter elicits no empathy, as he tells the story from the latest point in time, on an airplane in 1997, sitting next to one of his daughter’s old friends, neither does the tale of incest really move the viewer. Partly this is because the girl clearly engages in the fantasy element of the ‘romance,’ but also because they are so small a part of the tale that one has little chance to understand the father’s motivations, and especially the daughter’s receptivity to it (which seems forced, even though there are abused females who feel no ill will toward their abusers). One almost feels that she kyboshes the potential settlement for the town not because her father incested her and refuses to own up to it, but because she is jealous of the time he is not spending with her, while slavering over his potential fortune.
Similarly, there is another side story of, of course, the lone man in town, Billy Ansell, who refuses to be part of Stevens’ suit, out of principle. Played by the always engaging Bruce Greenwood, Billy is a widower involved in an adulterous affair with the owner of the local motel, Risa Walker (Alberta Watson), who has an utterly pointless nude scene that is neither erotic nor telling in any way. She is cheating on her lout of a husband, Wendell (Maury Chaykin), but the liaison comes out of nowhere, serves no real purpose (save paint the town as, surprise, a hotbed of kinky secrets), and we do not even realize that she is the same woman from a very early scene where her husband is badmouthing most of the town to Stevens.
These tales resolve themselves, but not in a realistic fashion. The girl is also hamhandedly used as a symbol when she recites the poem The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, by Robert Browning. The idea of lost children is so manifestly obvious in the film that the reason Egoyan adds this is bewildering, save that he bizarrely felt the loss aspect is not evident enough. It is. But it begs the question of just how confident Egoyan was in the original work- for the poem, the old friend of Stevens’ daughter, and many other elements in the film are, apparently, significantly different from the book. The opening scene of the film, where Stevens is in a car wash, heading out of the darkness and toward the light, is equally embarrassing in its condescension. But, even with what is just on the screen, there is little insight into the characters, and the score of the film, by Mychael Danna, is far too leading, telegraphing scenes as emotional ‘big moments.’ The cinematography by Paul Sarossy, however, is superb, and far above such recent films as The Motorcycle Diaries, where beautiful scenery does nothing. Here the Canadian Rockies are not merely background frill, but essential to the mod of the scenes, especially in the way Egoyan frames the action, and especially how he uses the weather, with fog and the natural hues of evening skillfully and subtly manipulating the emotional context of a scene.
The use of the non-linear structure also fails for a primary reason, it ruins the whole dramatic structure of the tale. Since we know what happens early in the film (save for a few minor details), because of Stevens’ reactions and body language, there is little drama in the girl’s testimonial lie. Even worse, because we know of the crash, the scene of the actual bus crash has little impact- there is nothing that allows us to feel the terror of the moment because we know it’s coming. And the whole focus on guilt and loss turns precious in a monologue Stevens tells his daughter’s best friend, about how he nearly had to save his daughter’s life by cutting her throat when she was bitten by spiders as a baby. The whole flashback within the flashforward does not work for the lighting and dreaminess is so gauzey, saccharine, and so, ‘This is the big moment of the film,’ that the viewer almost feels embarrassed at Egoyan’s cluelessness at the inappropriateness of it all. What Egoyan does is fetishize guilt and loss, not examine it, as he claims in one of the DVD’s bonus features. Whether this is because Egoyan is simply too immature to approach the subject, or thought he did and simply failed does not matter. The Sweet Hereafter simply is not that deep of a film, and had it gone a more standard route, it actually would have worked better. Overall, it is that rare film that ‘gilds the lily’ to the point of taking an interesting premise and killing it. Simply put, a tragic subject matter does not automatically make for a deep film. Yes, The Sweet Hereafter does not sink to the depths of Brokeback Mountain nor Crash, but it does not rise to the heights of a film by a master like Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, nor Yasujiro Ozu.
The DVD, put out by New Line Films shows the hour and fifty-six minute long film in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and has a pretty good commentary track by Egoyan and Banks, although Banks provides little insight, outside of cheering Egoyan on. Egoyan’s comments are very hit and miss- praising the aforementioned car wash sequence, and actually telling the viewer that this represents a passage to light. Well, duh! Banks does, however, shine a bit more in a featurette where he and Egoyan discuss the book and film at a university. Then there is a strange feature where each cast member answers two questions, although the videos are part of the actors’ filmography feature. There is a Charlie Rose interview segment with Egoyan, which is always well wrought, the poem The Pied Piper Of Hamelin in illustrated mode, Canadian and American film trailers, and an isolated musical score.
The Sweet Hereafter is not a bad film- on a scale of 0-100 I’d rank it a passable 70, but that’s still light years from being great cinema. Failure or not, there is enough skill in many aspects of this film, especially technically, to make me want to explore other works by Egoyan, however, if this film is any indication, Egoyan may be one of those filmmakers who’d do best to rely on the screenwriting skills of others, for this film’s greatest flaws lie in its screenplay (not just in ill wrought scenes but in well written scenes that are placed poorly in the linear structure of the film, and having read the fiction of Russell Banks, I doubt the screenplay’s flaws originated with the novel. Long live the word!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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