The Sweet Hereafter (1998)
"We've all lost our children. They're dead to us -- something terrible has happened that's taken our children away." When Mitchell Stevens utters these words, he is pondering both his own estrangement from a drug addicted daughter and the terrible accident that killed nearly every child in the tiny town of Sam Dent. Stevens (Ian Holm), an ambulance chasing attorney, is in Sam Dent to convince the parents of the town that he can represent their grief and anger in a court of law.
Atom Egoyan's *The Sweet Hereafter* (based on Russell Banks' novel) is a haunting meditation on grief and loss, parenthood and responsibility, and the enigmatic forces -- the accidents -- that change lives. Stevens doesn't believe in accidents. Accountability is his mantra, responsibility something that can be quantified, yet his own life spirals out of control as he works on the survivors of Sam Dent. Threaded throughout *The Sweet Hereafter*'s interwoven tale of bereft parenthood, of Stevens and Sam Dent, is the haunting, far from innocent fairy tale "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," resonating with its own message of accountability.
The narrative of *The Sweet Hereafter* spirals, shifting through time, beginning after the accident, returning to it (in a horrifying, chilling scene), weaving back and forth from life before to life after. Sam Dent is a town that cherishes its children, a community united in their love for their offspring. Without their children they are divided, isolated by inexpressible grief, and divided still more by Stevens' lawsuit. By taking the town's children, death steals not just the future of Sam Dent, but the present as well. Sam Dent ceases to exist, disappears in an instant, leaving behind people who have nothing left but their own anguish and individual flaws. Stevens observes their grief, exploits it, but also feels a kinship with these people. He wants to do for the parents of Sam Dent what he cannot do for himself and his own family, and so he listens to them with both therapeutic detachment and an intense need to turn their grief into gold, to create something tangible, sensible and controllable out of a senseless and incomprehensible act of random destruction.
In the back and forth of *The Sweet Hereafter*, disparate events and relationships are linked, taking on new meanings in a morally complex mosaic. The incestuous love between a father and his enigmatic daughter (Sarah Polley), the affair between a motel keeper and the widowed mechanic (Bruce Greenwood) who witnesses the bus accident that kills his children, the bus driver (Gabrielle Rose) and her silent, disabled husband, and Stevens' memory of the near death of his infant daughter all become part of an ineffable mystery, as if, by some cosmic conspiracy, their sins and sufferings, their heroism and love can all be tied to a random coincidence of time, place and circumstance.
The cinematography by Paul Sarossy emphasizes the rift between exterior and interior lives, the indifferent natural world and the intense emotional landscape of the bereaved. The frozen white vastness of British Columbia, cold, sterile and, when you know the accident is coming, serenely, impersonally menacing, is set against the dark, cramped homes of survivors who clutch cups of tea and curl up in grief. The cold neutrality outside and the rawness of emotion inside bleed together, each intensifying the other until they meet in a single, empty, burning iciness. *The Sweet Hereafter* is physically chilling, emotionally haunting, a poetic elegy and a lyrical, mysterious meditation on love and loss, chance and fate, and paying the piper.