Thursday, November 06, 2008

The mind is kind.


In the winter of 1997, as audiences were making Titanic the highest-grossing movie of all time, a smaller but no less moving film about a tragedy was also playing. The Sweet Hereafter, the story of a small town in Canada reeling from the loss of its children in a schoolbus accident, uses its nonlinear narrative to circle around the accident without showing it for its first half. When the moment finally comes, in an extreme long shot, we only see the bus in the distance as it skids across the ice and rests on its surface for a terribly pregnant moment before silently falling through. The moment is restrained but not detached; when I saw The Sweet Hereafter shortly after going crazy for Titanic, it was an important lesson in my cinematic education - that a few moments of silence can have as much emotional impact as three hours of spectacle.

Based on the novel by Russell Banks, the film follows lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) as he travels to the town in order to convince the grieving parents to sue the bus company for damages. Through Stevens we learn about the lives of the parents and the survivors of the accident - bus driver Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose) and teenager Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), who has been confined to a wheelchair. In one of the movie's best scenes, Stevens delivers an impassioned speech to one couple about the need to search for justice; while it would have been easier to write the lawyer as a cynical opportunist, Banks and screenwriter/director Atom Egoyan choose to depict Stevens as an essentially good man who believes his work is just even as he is shaken by frequent phone calls from his own troubled, drug-addicted daughter. Though there is no clear cause for the accident, Stevens argues repeatedly that someone must be at fault and must pay; as we observe (again, at a distance) the parents and people of the town, their need to find answers in the face of incomprehensible loss is painfully identifiable.

Though the snowy landscape practically imposes a somber tone on most Canadian films, Egoyan uses the surroundings to particuarly strong effect here. The camera obsessively follows the image of the yellow bus against the blinding white snow, retracing its route over and over as if trying to unveil a clue it won't find. Coupled with Mychael Danna's icy score, the film - which juggles chronology, taking as its framing device the Pied Piper story - is remarkable for its sustaned austerity. Where other directors would fall victim to forced sentiment or false uplift with this material, Egoyan is attempt to let the story and performances unfold and trust in the strength of his source. This discipline occasionally works against the film, giving it a hermetic quality, particuarly when we learn that Nicole was sexually abused by her father (Tom McCamus). Egoyan reveals this fact in a shot of daughter and son embracing in a hayloft, by candlelight - the film hesitates at really dealing with the implications of this provocative image. Since Nicole's actions towards the end of the film are apparently motivated by her relationship with dad, Egoyan satisfies some insight into Nicole in the name of good taste. Thankfully, Sarah Polley's terrific performance, her piercing eyes serving as our own through the film, tells us all we need to know about Nicole.

I used to think The Sweet Hereafter was a masterpiece; watching it again, I found it to be merely an excellent one. What remains perfect is Ian Holm's performance. One of the most underrated actors, Holm is able to find as much truth in a simple gesture - standing before a mirror, peering at himself through his hands - as most actors can only begin to find in an extended monologue. At one point, we hear Stevens' story about having saved his daughter's life when she was still young; we can hear the bitterness and undying love for his child choking at Holm's throat. The question of whether any life is worth saving hangs, unanswered, in the air, and though Egoyan doesn't placate us with easy answers, his film finds dignity and even grace in our uncertainties.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Many thanks for the review! It perfectly sums up my own shifting feelings towards the film, and indeed all of Egoyan's work. Thanks again.