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The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

October 20, 2009

8/10 Pointed Fingers

A powerful, poignant movie about coping (and not coping) with grief and what it takes to move on from personal tragedy.

The Sweet Hereafter is about a lawyer that’s hired to represent a Canadian family who’s daughter was paralyzed after surviving a bus accident that took the lives of nearly all the town’s children. To bolster his case, the lawyer makes his rounds to all the said childrens’ parents in hopes that they will jump on his bandwagon to sue the bus manufacturer, all the while struggling with the troubled relationship he has with his own daughter, one that is rendering him utterly helpless.

It had been a long time since I first saw this movie but it wasn’t until I came across David Schleicher’s review of it that I was remember how damn good this was. A refresher was in order. And while it didn’t exactly carry the emotional weight that it did the first time around – probably because I knew what was coming – there aren’t a whole lot of movies that handle this kind of subject matter with such insight and humanity as The Sweet Hereafter does. Maybe Ordinary People, but that’s about it.

I feel ashamed that this is the only movie I’ve seen by director Atom Egoyan, because the guy sure knows how to tell a story from both a visual and literary standpoint. Maybe it’s just how Canada looks naturally, but the scenery in this movie is absolutely beautiful. It’s stark, it’s empty, and it’s immense, and it all complements the feel of the story quite naturally. Egoyan has also written a fantastic script and taken some fascinating liberties in adapting it from the novel it’s based off of. And even though I haven’t read the book, the liberty I’m talking about has to do with a parallel that Egoyan draws between the childrens’ deaths and the story of the pied piper leading the children out of Hamelin. You have to see it to get it, but the point is that it’s brilliant.

But the thing Egoyan does best here is that he maintains a much-needed sense of subtlety throughout it all. The biggest pitfall he could have fallen into here would have been to beat his audience over the head with what he was trying to say and try to provide his audience with answers where there are none, and he evades it by evoking this sense of unspoken tension and anger amongst the townspeople, letting them sort their issues out in the ways they see fit rather than try to manufacture it into a melodrama of sorts. Thank God he didn’t do that.

The acting is also very good on behalf of the entire cast for the most part. Most of the townspeople are actors I’ve never seen before or since, but two individuals really stood out to me. The first is Ian Holm (aka: Bilbo Baggins) as the lawyer. He’s a damn good actor and it wasn’t until his performance here that I really started to notice. Really intense and very…honest at the same time.

The other actor is Bruce Greenwood – who I only know as Captain Kirk’s superior officer in the latest Star Trek movie – as one of the townspeople trying to get on with his life after losing his wife to cancer and his two kids in the accident. He does a great job here and is easily the most interesting and affected person to watch.

Very good soundtrack, too. Again, perfectly complements the feel of the movie and it’s not often that the lyrics of the song choices actually reflect the kind of emotion being conveyed through the script. Really, really impressive.

And in case you were wondering, no, this is not a true story. The accident itself is based off actual events that occurred in Texas, but everything else is fictional. Nonetheless, there’s something here everyone can relate to even if you’ve never experienced loss in such extreme circumstances as these. The heart of this story isn’t so much about the accident itself, what caused it and who’s to blame, but rather everything that comes after and how drastically the town has changed as everyone tries to pick up the remaining pieces of their lives.

It goes without saying at this point, but this is one heavy movie that you need to be in the right mood to fully appreciate. That’s hardly a complaint, more a heads up than anything else. So if you’re looking for a good drama that leave you moved, The Sweet Hereafter is a very well-made, emotional powerhouse of a movie for those interested.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2009 3:07 am

    It’s so tough to sell heavy drama these days. Life is so heavy. You gave this review a better grade than most critics I remember.

  2. October 20, 2009 5:29 am

    I haven’t seen this film since it first came out. I think it is time I saw it again. It was the first time I had seen the brilliant Sarah Polley, a great actress who doesn’t make enough films.

  3. October 20, 2009 9:12 am

    Loved this movie, it introduced me to one of my favorite actresses in Sarah Polley, if only she worked more often. Like you it remains the only Egoyan film I have seen, someday I’ll get around to more of his work, someday…

    • October 20, 2009 10:35 am

      Yeah, I forgot to mention Polley, she was really good in hindsight, especially for someone her age. Good call, guys.

  4. Mark Redmond permalink
    October 20, 2009 9:11 pm

    I agree, a great movie, i saw it when it first came out and again a few years later.
    I recently downloaded the title song (sung by Sarah Polley) to my I-Phone, a haunting tune that did fit well with the overall movie.
    Book is by Russell Banks, lives right across the lake (Champlain) from us, in Essex, NY, we take the ferry over there at least once a summer, there is one book store there and they prominently display all of his since he is a local.
    And you are right, good acting by the versatile Bruce Greenwood (played Truman Capote’s lover also in that movie), if i remember his best line in the “Sweet Hereafter” is when he meets Ian Holm at night, beside the abandoned bus, and says something to the effect of, “You’d better get out of here before I beat you so bad you start pissing blood.”

  5. goregirl permalink
    October 21, 2009 3:00 pm

    Atom Egoyan is Brilliant…and he garners extra points for being a fellow Canadian! There is a stark and brutal honesty to every Egoyan film I’ve seen. Just this weekend, we rented ‘Sweet Hereafter’ along with ‘Exotica’ from the library. Sadly, I have only seen the two aforementioned and ‘Felicia’s Journey’ but I have enjoyed all 3 to varying degrees. Friends have recommended his film ‘The ADJUSTER’ to me, but I’ve yet to see it.

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