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The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

by on 2012/07/30

“Speak a little softer / Work a little harder /
Shoot less with more care /
Sing a little sweeter / Love a little longer /
Soon you will be there”

* * * * *

It’s no exaggeration to say Atom Egoyan’s Exotica was one of my profoundest disappointments since beginning this site. Most viewers apparently enjoy it, including friends and family, people whose opinions I hold in high regard.

If you’re going to cover CanCon, however, you’ve got to consider Egoyan. As esteemed as he is prolific, his output refuses to be ignored. If I’m going to watch nonsense like FUBAR and Porky’s, then a better class of disappointment is only fair enough.

Loitering all over various lists of greatest Canadian films ever is his adaptation of the novel The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks. I’ve waited to review it, ostensibly because the title made it sound like a good month-ender but, in truth, because it seemed so damned depressing.

Based on an actual incident in Texas, in 1989, it concerns the events surrounding the deaths of a small town’s children in a school bus, transposed to a wintry western Canada. Ian Holm (eXistenZ) stars as Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer with a chip on his shoulder, intent on uncovering blame. He’s not the usual anti-hero. Like his fellows, he’s a mix of strengths and weaknesses, and sympathetic in his own distinctive way.

He’s joined by a cast of national stalwarts, some in near-cameos — for example Maury Chaykin (Whale Music) and Arsinee Khanjian (Last Night) — and others in larger roles: Bruce Greenwood (2009’s Star Trek), Sarah Polley (Go and Away from Her), Gabrielle Rose (The Delicate Art of Parking), Tom McCamus (Possible Worlds), and Alberta Watson (Canadian TV’s Newsroom).

The movie’s players and its narrative structure reminded me of Exotica . . . not just the overlap in actor names, but in archetypal echoes: Greenwood as a grieving single father, Polley as his babysitter, and Khanjian as an artistic outsider.

Yet, for all its similarities to Exotica, I enjoyed Hereafter far more. I welcomed its “adjustments” to the earlier piece. I connected with the content and themes, admired the dialogue, sympathized with (aspects of) the characters, took notice of the cinematography — perhaps because of the photogenic settings — and appreciated the use of music by Mychael Danna, Jane Siberry, and the Tragically Hip.

Plot-wise, it felt less like a sprawling ensemble, and more a cross-section of parallels. The focus cuts between different times and places, across four major threads: a bedtime story, the accident, investigation, and a conversation. Some spin off their own asides, all of them related, especially the story read aloud by Polley as Nicole. Her rendition of The Pied Piper of Hamelin is reflected in the tale overall.

The Sweet Hereafter certainly made a strong impression. I keep thinking about it long after the end. With people and predicaments so complex, conflicted, and well-rounded, the debate continues within me even now. It was less upsetting than I expected, if not exactly a feel-good time.

I’m just happy knowing there’s hope for me and Egoyan.

* * * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

112 minutes

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