SWEET HEREAFTER, THE(director/writer: Atom Egoyan; screenwriter: from a Russell Banks novel; cinematographer: Paul Sarossy; editor: Susan Shipton; cast: Ian Holm (Mitchell Stephens), Sarah Polley (Nicole Burnell), Bruce Greenwood (Billy), Tom McCamus (Sam Burnell), Gabrielle Rose (Dolores), Alberta Watson (Risa Walker), Arsinee Khanjian (Wanda Otto), Earl Pastko (Hartley Otto), Maury Chaykin (Wendell Walker), Caerthan Banks (Zoe), Brooke Johnson (Mary Burnell); Runtime: 110; Fine Line Features; 1997-Can.)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A flawlessly made film, magnificently acted, with beautiful cinematography to go with a compelling story about a school bus accident resulting in the death and injury to most of the children on board. The accident rips the heart out of an isolated small-town in British Columbia. It’s a story that is very difficult to cover in all the implications it has for the families and for the ambulance chasing, big-city lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian). Yet, it does do just that. It is adapted from a Russell Banks novel and brought to screen not only intact but with a certain forcefulness that reflects the director’s ability to dig deeply into the story and make it both accessible and chilling in a novel way.
From the opening scene where Ian receives a call on his cell phone while in a car wash from his daughter Zoe (Caerthan), who is a druggie in-and-out of drug clinics for the past 10-years and a bitter disappointment to Ian and his separated wife. She hates them both equally as she once loved them both as a child. She will call him at all hours and their conversations are regrettably filled with rancor, though they never stop the relationship completely, even though there is no hope for it to improve. Something went terribly wrong (which the movie never reveals) and neither party knows what else to do. One of the most touching and memorable scenes is the distraught Ian telling a school chum of Zoe while he is aboard a plane to meet Zoe, how she was bitten by a spider when she was 3 and how he rushed her to a hospital 40-miles away, prepared to do anything to save her; he was even willing to operate on her in the car with a pen knife, if necessary.
The film does not move along in a linear timeline so it is constantly going back and forth from events leading up to the accident, to the perplexed guilt and anger that permeates Ian’s thoughts about his failed relationship with Zoe. So when Ian arrives at his first potential client’s place which is a motel owned by Alberta and Maury, we already know much about the accident and why Ian is there. We quickly learn from the couple all the foibles and gossip about the other potential lawsuit clients Ian hopes to represent, such as their incest and thievery. Later on we learn that the most likable guy in the story, Billy (Bruce), is having an affair with Alberta.
Ian is very intense to the point of being almost over-the-edge, but he makes sense to these victims; and, he requires no payment if he loses the case. He will be getting 1/3 of the settlement if he wins. He is able to convince many of the others involved to retain him (the others, apparently, get another lawyer). Even though, there is really no one to blame for the accident, it was simply the case of Dolores (Gabrielle), the very capable driver of the bus, driving slowly but still hitting an icy spot on the road and the bus going over the guard rail on the side of the mountain and sinking in the soft ice below. Ian’s argument is that there are no such things as accidents — someone must be blamed, if it is not the driver then it must be the bus company that cut corners on safety (besides they have the money to pay off the claims). The important thing is that they need compensation for their grief and anger; since, their children can’t be brought back to life, then money will have to do. And this dictum we learn also applies to himself, as he considers himself a victim just as much as they are. Which is why he thinks that he can easily identify with these parents and their grief; he has told himself, that his daughter is already dead and he thinks by helping other parents this is the way he is to get compensated for his grief.
In case you didn’t get the thrust of the story from that angle the theme of the story is again presented from another angle. Nicole (Sarah), the baby-sitter to Billy’s kids, reads them a Robert Browning nursery poem, The Pied Piper, the night before the accident. The Piper’s the one who killed all the rats in town and when the town refused to pay him, he led all the children in town away, except the one who was too lame to follow, into a magical place where everything was strange and new.
Nicole survives the accident but is crippled, ruining her chances of being a rock and roller. While the kids she baby-sat for, all die. After his wife’s death, Billy’s habit was to follow the bus to school. He loved his kids so much; he loved to wave to them as he drove behind them and they would wave back from the back of the bus. Thereby he witnessed the accident and felt drained, especially when he was unable to help as he saw his kids die.
Nicole’s parents zealously back the lawsuit, to the regret of Billy and Nicole. Billy vehemently states that this will split the town apart forever, that there was no one to blame, let it be. Nicole’s reasons are more nefarious (it seems ironic that the theme of the poem she read to Billy’s kids, will the next day mirror her situation). Since she has a poker face, she surprises her seemingly loving parents and startled lawyer by lying at the deposition.
This is a brilliant film. One of the best of the recent lawyer genre films now being made (it is the best one I have seen); and, the only reason it is not a masterpiece, in my opinion, is because it was too real, something metaphorical was lacking. I went away intellectually gratified, but did not feel emotionally satisfied.
The film opened up the wounds of the locals, whereas they would see something more about their lives than before the tragedy. The lawyer comes across as not a good or an evil man (he is, merely, not a man I cared for); but, as a man driven and ripped apart by guilt, even to the point of exhibiting bizarre behavior. Holm searches to find a meaning for his life that he doesn’t quite understand anymore, which is apparently more true than his belief that he is so committed to his work because he is trying to find justice for his clients.
So what remains to ponder, is the fact that nothing is as simple as the accident. Everyone’s life has been changed and nothing is the same, anymore. But the question that still remains is what has anyone learned, and that is left lingering because there is an emotional disconnect inbred in the story and we don’t know for sure what was learned.
REVIEWED ON 10/13/98 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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