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Review: Vengeance in a town full of grief in 'The Sweet Hereafter'

December 15, 1997
Web posted at: 6:38 p.m. EST (2338 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Atom Egoyan's devastating new film, "The Sweet Hereafter," bluntly raises some truly disturbing questions -- What, exactly, do our children mean to us, and how do we deal with the void that's left when they're tragically removed from our lives?

Egoyan aims his restrained camera at a small Adirondack community that's suffering an answer to that riddle on a grand scale. The town of maybe a few hundred people is locked in a self-sustaining cycle of grief after a school bus slides off the road one morning, careens down a slope, and sinks in an icy lake. The majority of their children are killed in the accident, and the formerly friendly, helpful townspeople are slowly drowning in their own sorrow.

When Mitchell Stephens (a litigation attorney played, in The Performance of his hugely impressive career, by Ian Holm) appears on the scene, you hope that he's going to be a source of healing, but Stephens is dealing with ghosts of his own that make him pursue a questionable lawsuit against the bus company with something approaching Biblical fury. His grown daughter is a heroin addict who continually calls him on his cell phone, trying to scam him out of money for drugs and basically playing him like a violin. His enormous love for her won't allow him to turn his back, although Stephens knows she's not his daughter anymore. She's an albatross, a personal demon that forces him to pay for past sins. Stephens' tragedy is that those sins probably never occurred.

This subject matter sounds emotionally unrelenting, and it is, but Egoyan ultimately manages to wring hopefulness out of one of the most unforgiving stories I've ever seen put on film. When Holm comes to town and starts trying to find the proper parents to pull off the lawsuit, he sits in middle-class living rooms milking good people for insight into the dirty laundry of their neighbors. He wants only the morally pure to be put on display in the courtroom, but (as you could expect) that type of purity is a dream. He truly wants to address the grief of these damaged people, because, by doing so, he'll be addressing his own sense of loss, but instead he begins to inadvertently tear at the fabric of the community. He's an avenging angel who's too blindly self-absorbed to see the contagious evil of what he's trying to do.

Egoyan (who's previous films have, frankly, never done much for me) approaches the story with mostly static, coldly imagined shots. The empty, snow-covered streets serve as a reminder of what's missing in this town, and he lets people trundle through the winter chill as if they're serving a penance for merely existing. He also brilliantly leaps backwards and forwards in time, weaving a tapestry of sorrow that builds on the story like an incoming wave. There are a number of clandestine relationships that dance in and out of the story as people try to find something to hold onto in the wake of the accident, but these survival elements are also shown as necessary evils when the children are still very much alive. There's a generally uneasy tone to the storytelling, as if these people have slowly been failing all their lives, and the accident finally awoke them to the reality of their shortcomings.

Clips from the movie "The Sweet Hereafter"
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Partial trailer: 1.8MB/49 sec. QuickTime Movie
Full trailer: 2 min., 24 sec. VXtreme streaming video

Holm, as I said, is remarkable. He leans in, intently grimacing, and encourages the bereaved parents to let fly with their rage, probably because it's the only thing that gives him a connection to other human beings. At first it looks like he's enjoying watching their pain rise to the top, but we come to find that it's the only way he can cope. He seems to be repeatedly telling himself, "Look! Other people have it, too!"

There's one scene in which Holm tells a story about the time he thought he was going to have to use a pocketknife to cut a hole in his baby daughter's throat as her windpipe was swelling shut. Holm balances the story with a mixture of awe and sheer terror. The dialogue is a wildly effective intermingling of love, fear, courage, and, finally (in the wake of whom this baby has become) anger and betrayal, and is as powerful as anything I've seen in 1997. Holm deserves a Best Actor Oscar, and almost certainly will not get it. Nowadays you have to periodically wink at the camera or triumphantly raise your fists in the air at the end of the film if you're shooting for a statue.

There's not a weak performance to be found in the ensemble cast. Bruce Greenwood, as one of the few people in the town who won't have anything to do with a lawsuit, conveys a dangerous sort of anger. He seems ready to explode at any minute, and, in one scene, darkly suggests that he's about to beat Holm to a bloody pulp for setting these old friends against one another. You don't doubt for a second that he's capable of it. A couple of the characters (such as the rather simple-minded bus driver, played by Gabrielle Rose) are a little too pat, but these are very minor quibbles when viewing the movie as a whole.

Unexpectedly, the wisdom needed to make it through such an all-encompassing tragedy is supplied by one of the surviving children. Sarah Polley, as a beautiful teen-ager who is paralyzed in the accident, looks like a cross between Uma Thurman and Martha Plimpton, and displays a sharp, knowing gaze that's way beyond her years. She can readily identify the manipulations that are taking place around her because, until the accident, her own father had been using her as the focus of his sexual fantasies. Polley is as memorable as Holm, and these two performances alone would make the film a must-see. That it's the most precisely conveyed emotional experience to be released this year makes it an abundance of riches.

"The Sweet Hereafter" is definitely adult fare. There's some nudity, an adulterous relationship, incest, and an unforgiving sense of anguish. It's a movie that's well-worth your time and mind. Rated R. 110 minutes.


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