Sunday 25 July 2021

Movie Review: The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

A morose drama, The Sweet Hereafter explores a small town's grief after tragedy through the lens of a lawyer chasing a big case. The portrait of a tight knit community in crisis is stark, but also static.

Lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) arrives at a small town in rural Canada, where a recent school bus crash resulted in the death of many kids. The driver Dolores (Gabrielle Rose) lost control on a patch of ice, but Mitchell attempts to convince the grieving parents he will find a way to sue the town, the school board, or the bus manufacturer to secure a big money settlement.

As Mitchell visits the parents, the town's secrets are revealed. Billy Ansel (Bruce Greenwood), the local mechanic, is having an affair with motel owner Risa. He lost his two kids in the crash but resents the lawyer's presence. Teenager Nicole (Sarah Polley), an aspiring singer/songwriter and a victim of sexual abuse, was paralyzed but now finds her father's pursuit of money distasteful. College-educated parents Wanda and Hartley Otto lost their adopted son Bear and are quick to sign up with Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Mitchell himself is a suffering parent. His daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks) is a drug addict running with the wrong crowd and only phoning him to extract money. On a plane trip Mitchell bumps into Zoe's school friend Allison (Stephanie Morgenstern) and vents his frustrations, while also recalling a harrowing incident from Zoe's childhood.

Written and directed by Atom Egoyan based on the Russell Banks book (inspired by a true 1989 bus tragedy in Texas), The Sweet Hereafter is a quiet journey into the heart of sadness. The snow-covered, isolated terrain contributes a blanket of sorrow, as an outsider pokes away at open wounds to inflame anger and earn himself a lawsuit. 

The revelations of internecine misbehaviour ensure a captivating viewing experience, as does the structure elegantly jumping between three timelines (before and after the crash, and Mitchell's plane trip). But the film stops short of evolving the town's residents into rounded characters, while overplaying a heavy-handed reference to the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The story is told through the eyes of a dour lawyer seeking a headline case, and although Ian Holm brings the necessary heartache to the role's personal tribulations, Mitchell is a glorified ambulance chaser and in some ways the least interesting character. At no point does he present a viable thesis to translate his talk into a coherent negligence case against a deep-pocketed defendant. The parallels between his sense of loss towards his daughter and the town's trauma is a worthwhile but limited narrative device. 

Elsewhere, Egoyan presents snapshots, then let's them sit like pictures on a mantelpiece. Nicole's victimization by her father and subsequent act of cerebral revenge, the Ottos' unbearable pain, bus driver Dolores' guilt, and Billy Ansel's affair with Risa and disgust at Mitchell, are all snippets of promising stories. They remain just that, Egoyan content with presenting but not expanding. The Sweet Hereafter sympathizes, then leaves its card behind and moves on.

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