Without affirmative calm or resolution, The Sweet Hereafter (1997) departs much in the same way as it arrives. Adapted from a book and based on true events, this multi-layered account of a tragic incident investigates the way in which individuals structure and build their lives. Although relatively straightforward, the plot is presented in a highly nonlinear fashion challenging audiences to engage in an active viewing experience. Typical of celebrated Canadian director Atom Egoyan, an unnerving examination of the human condition is conducted.
As the opening credits dissolve, Mitchell Stephens, exquisitely played by Ian Holm, is in a carwash when his belligerent drug-addict daughter rings. Profoundly vexatious, she rambles on hysterically and cyclically between self-hate and guilt to vulnerability and despondence. To contrast, we are then introduced to a young Sarah Polley, Nicole Burnell, rehearsing on an amusement park stage with her bright-eyed father watching close by to quickly give praise. These two daughter-daddy scenes open audiences to the familial drama and intricate relationship-based plot to follow. Affirming Egoyan’s ability to create uncanny imagery, the carwash scene concludes with the machine malfunctioning and Stephens realizing he is trapped, much in the same way he is hopelessly trapped with his daughter. Likewise, Nicole’s fate is sealed within the imagery of the amusement park, an atmosphere of carnival pleasures, heights, fright and transgressions.
A town buried in snow and grief in the Canadian Rockies is the central location of events. At its heart is a seedy motel in which big city lawyer Stephens makes his first stop. Haphazardly greeted by a disheveled couple in mourning, Stephens tells them his pursuit of a class-action lawsuit surrounding the school bus accident that took the lives of over a dozen children.
The narrative jumps between time frames and points of view through pre- and post-accident flashbacks, both of which are two years prior to present day. In brief but powerful scenes and through varying dialogues and perspectives, the events leading up to and surrounding the accident are unraveled.
Nicole, the previously mentioned aspiring teenage singer, survives the bus crash paralyzed from the waist down. She realizes she will never be a star nor will she ever be what her furtive father desires as the target of his sexual abuse without the use of her legs. Dolores Driscoll, the driver of the bus, survives in a neck brace, and despite being deeply saddened about what happened, does not let it consume her. Hippie parents that lost their adopted Native son appear to be the most wholesome, immune to the drama and scandals of the town, and are crippled by the tragedy. Stephens has to put on his best lawyer-face to convince them of the urgency and legitimacy of his cause while playing on their emotions in an eloquent soliloquy. Billy Ansel, a single parent father, lost two offspring that day. He was present at the time of the accident driving his usual route behind the bus happily waving to both children riding in the back. He is also the counterpart in an affair with the motel owner’s wife.
The intentional displacement and out of sequences scenes mimics the chaos and unrest both before and after the crash within this small town. Egoyan strays from the obvious elements of an emotional drama and instead presents a requiem of agony and loss. The combination of these elements yields a problematic experience for many audiences.
In the pivotal scene of the film, Stephens and other lawyers interview the survivors for their own on the record accounts from that fateful day. In Nicole’s deposition she eerily insists that Dolores was speeding. She does this with impeccable soundness and assurance despite her lies.
A medieval musical score puts viewers in the same ghostly daze as the survivors while shaping a timeless whimsical tale. Acting as a central metaphor, Nicole reads aloud the story of the Pied Piper to the children she is babysitting, who later both die in the accident, and then overtop subsequent scenes. This fable of loss and revenge alludes to many of Egoyan’s characters. Most distinctly, Stephens is leading the townspeople into the lawsuit, as the Piper led the rats, and Nicole lashes out much like the vengeful Pied Piper after not being rewarded for ridding the town of the rodents. Conspicuously, both tales conclude in a town with lesser children.
The ubiquitous question surrounds motives and consequently moral ambiguity. Why are so many of these people acting in the way that they are? Why is Mr. Stephens really pursuing this case? For monetary compensation, escapism from his troubled world, or the resemblance to his own life with a lost child? To the survivors, after the death of so many children, how does life go on? The source of pain is not caused by the crash alone, but by many other things: addiction, adultery, abuse. Does the crash give way to enlightenment and perspective? And finally, did Nicole’s confession arise out of anger? She feels abused and scorned and this is the most readily available outlet?
This dark tale is an attempt to explore the way in which we understand the world. Aside from the Rocky Mountains and Hudson’s Bay Company cameos, it is not profoundly or overtly Canadian. However, it does follow in the tradition of Canadian cinema and its search for a distinct voice, and in doing so, depicts the ideas and themes that the writers and directors know best, themselves, everyday life, relationships and the human condition.
The Sweet Hereafter demonstrates Egoyan’s sophistication as a director. Through astounding character depth and analysis, realized through superb acting, an affective and unsettling assertion of the human condition results. The film is not about a school bus accident, but about the stories leading up to and following, tangled relationships and their complexities, insecurities and secrecies. Much more is presented than death and dying. At its core is the horror and pain of surviving, what comes after and what is left behind… A town of the living dead, or as Nicole narrates in the closing scene, a “town of people living in the sweet hereafter.”