Tuesday, May 24, 2011

FI: The Sweet Hereafter

The Sweet Hereafter
Canada, 1997
Directed by Atom Egoyan

Based on the book by Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter has a very literary structure. The plot seems to unfold in a spiral, tracing from ring to ring, guided not by linear time but by the dictates of the painful emotional core around which it's centered. Attorney Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), motivated in part by his own broken family, visits the residents of a small Canadian community where a tragic school bus accident has killed or maimed many of the town's children. Stevens tries to convince the families involved to join a likely frivolous class-action suit in the hopes of making something out of the senseless tragedy, but the cracks splintering through the town's relationships make this a challenge.

By dislocating us in time, the film highlights the difficulty of approaching and resolving traumatic incidents. One moment, we see the town before the accident; the next, we see the aftermath. We see Stevens making impassioned (if ethically dubious) attempts to woo plaintiffs, then we're with him on a plane, at some temporally-indistinct moment, as he tells a former family friend about his daughter's troubles. Through these jumps, Egoyan hints at connections and motivations, and traces threads about the all-too-human need to blame someone, anyone, when accidents occur. But sometimes, accidents just happen, and in so doing, obscure the smaller tragedies under the surface.

The Sweet Hereafter is not a puzzle film, even if its intentions take some work to ferret out. It may be cold, grey, and unforgiving, but it's also well-made, well-acted, and more emotionally "grown-up" than most movies produced today.

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