A stunning examination of love, loss

December 25, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Sweet Hereafter" marks the true arrival of Canadian director Atom Egoyan, whose previous efforts -- "The Adjuster," "Exotica" -- have dwelled on the fringes of human experience, always with a slightly skewed, highly stylized point of view.

Here, Egoyan has escaped the psychological margins and made straight for the human heart, finding the fears and sorrows that lie coiled just beneath its pulse. With unerring control and a superb sense of structure and tone, Egoyan has patiently sifted through the chaos that is occasionally visited upon lives of otherwise little note and, in the process, has created a magnificent, thoroughly absorbing rumination on love and loss.

Adopted by Egoyan from the Russell Banks novel of the same name, "The Sweet Hereafter" takes place in December 1995, when attorney Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) arrives in the tiny Canadian hamlet of Sam Dent after a devastating school bus accident has taken the lives of most of the town's children.

At first shunned, Stephens eventually wins the trust of a few of the community's parents who, glassy-eyed in their grief, respond with visceral hunger to his insistence that "there is no such thing as an accident." Something caused the bus to skid off the icy road and into a frozen pond -- a faulty bus, a loosened guard-rail -- and Stephens brings a zeal worthy of the Old Testament to the project of rooting out the evildoer.

Some "corrupt agency or corporation" saw that the difference between a 10-cent bolt and a $1 million out-of-court settlement was worth the risk. "It's up to me to assume moral responsibility in this society," Stephens says. "Let me direct your rage."

Holm infuses Stephens' sermons with such heartfelt, dignified indignation that it comes as no surprise when the most upstanding Sam Dent citizens agree to be represented by him.

But as Stephens gets to know the families, as well the woman who was driving the bus, who ambiguously refers to her charges as "little berries waiting to be plucked off the hillside," it becomes clear that his mission will be more complex than just litigious gamesmanship.

Through Stephens' interviews and a number of deftly interwoven flashbacks, the parents' "real" stories -- and sins -- come to light, as well as Stephens' fractured relationship with his own troubled daughter.

"The Sweet Hereafter" isn't just another tale of tragedy and its emotional aftermath, although as such it's a fine one, devoid of anything cheap or cliche. But as the story of the Sam Dent tragedy gains dimension and texture, Egoyan's film becomes a mystery that plumbs not only whodunit, but how guilt, shame and grief can twine into a skein of rage and, finally, healing.

In its structural integrity, visual acuity, consistently powerful performances and haunting musical backdrop, "The Sweet Hereafter" brings all of Egoyan's early promise into one breathtaking triumph. His admirers will see some of his earlier films in this one: the oblique emotional approach of "The Adjuster," the elegiac tone that underlay "Exotica." Mostly, they'll see the director's masterly control in revealing the facts slowly, in shards that only fit together when the story is finished -- just like life.

Comparisons of "The Sweet Hereafter" to the Coen Brothers' "Fargo" are inevitable, most likely because of their grand wintry backdrops (photographed here with crisp, sweeping monumentality by Paul Sarossy) and Mychael Danna's mournful, anthemic score.

And in its contemplation of the inexplicable, "The Sweet Hereafter" shares a similar moral core as the Coens' film. But where "Fargo" was about pure evil and its flip side, "The Sweet Hereafter" isn't so black and white.

Egoyan isn't interested in evil as much as the need to create it where it doesn't exist -- and to turn a blind eye to it where it does. "Something terrible has happened that's taken our children away," wails Stephens, linking his loss with that of the Sam Dent parents.

"The Sweet Hereafter" doesn't hold any answers to how or why the tenuous bonds of love invisibly take hold and let go between parents and their children. But as its central image of a young girl sleeping in the arms of her parents indicates, it knows that love is as fraught with danger and grief as it is with joy.

'The Sweet Hereafter'

Starring Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus

Directed by Atom Egoyan

Rated R (sexuality and some language)

Released by: Fine Line Features

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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