****/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B+
starring Ian Holm, Maury Chaykin, Peter Donaldson, Bruce Greenwood
screenplay by Atom Egoyan, based on the novel by Russell Banks
directed by Atom Egoyan
by Bryant Frazer For anyone left reeling by Atom Egoyan's Exotica, with its sexualized miasma of grief and longing lingering in the mind, the very first shot of The Sweet Hereafter is vertigo-inducing. Once again, the camera tracks very slowly from left to right as the titles appear on screen--a signal, perhaps, that more human misery awaits. Egoyan eventually alights on a scene of tranquility, as a family of three--mother, father, child--sleeps on a bare wooden floor. Beyond the stylistic link to the opening of Egoyan's previous film, I'm not sure what it is about this tableau that should be so disquieting. Partly it's the slow, deliberate camera move that brought us here. Partly it's the voyeuristic viewing opportunity. (Sleeping families are, of course, vulnerable, and the casual exposure of most of the woman's breast puts the audience in the place of intruders spying on a private moment.) And partly it's that the God's-eye P.O.V. suggests the omnipotence and indifference of the universe at large when tragedy is the subject.
As is Egoyan's wont, he withholds the significance of this image for a long time. Rather, the apparently unrelated action begins with the unheralded arrival of attorney Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) in a small town. It doesn't take long for the basic pieces of the story to fall into place. There was an accident. It involved a packed school bus. Half of the children on board drowned, devastating their now-bereft parents. It's appropriate that the British Columbia landscapes of the film are totally snow-covered, sprawling across the widescreen frame and radiating an icy chill. In its unsparing depiction of the loneliness and despair that afflicts the tragedy-wracked town of Sam Dent, The Sweet Hereafter is one of the coldest movies ever made.
Mitchell hasn't travelled into the tundra to be Mr. Warmth; he's there to make a buck. But he casts himself as the spirit of righteous vengeance. His well-practised shtick steers mostly clear of promised cash settlements. Instead he tells the parents, some of them still bundles of fresh nerves who shed tears by the bucket, that their lawsuits will hold companies accountable for the corners they cut and the calculations they made against the assumed value of human life. By suing the bastards posthaste, who knows how many deaths they could prevent in the future? He strives to claim the moral high ground, vowing a liability lawsuit against the school-bus operator, the school district, the government that constructed the guardrail the bus crashed through--whoever has deep-enough pockets to cash out this ticket. To hear Mitchell tell the tale, it's a voucher proffered by Lady Justice herself.
Couched in pastel 'scope cinematography and underscored with propulsive yet mournful music written for period instruments by Mychael Danna (including some songs for Sarah Polley to sing on camera), The Sweet Hereafter is given extra, quasi-mystical heft by Egoyan's repeated references to the German legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who stole away with all the children of a small village. In some versions of the story, such as the one by Robert Browning that's quoted extensively here, the kids were taken as retribution for the villagers' reneging on a deal. In any event, the fairytale resonates throughout The Sweet Hereafter, working as an emotional shorthand for complex feelings of guilt and sorrow, and it represents a savvy riff by Egoyan on the source novel by Russell Banks.
But the film is anchored by Holm's intense, sometimes-funny performance as a legal pro who can almost, but not quite, sell himself as the principled lawyer he pretends to be. His recitation of the financial terms of his retainer is a little too rehearsed, his eagerness to go sprinting out into the snow to find a pen and paper a little too pronounced. You wonder how long he's been doing this kind of thing, and whether he was a more convincing moral crusader in his youth. Holm's work might be even more penetrating if the film spent a bit less time on Mitchell's own sad backstory. In the movie's very first minutes, he's taking a call from his daughter--drug-addicted and maybe HIV-positive, forever begging for cash--from inside a car wash. The point of her frantic, not-entirely-coherent phone calls is pretty on-the-nose, as they say (her name is, yikes, Zoe), yet there's something more plangent about that car wash, scrubbing away as he talks to the girl, as if he's already in need of cleansing upon his arrival.
The viewer, too, may be up for a nice hot shower with some Dr. Bronner's. The lonelyhearts trysts enjoyed by widower Billy (Bruce Greenwood) and motel owner Risa (Alberta Watson) while her husband is otherwise occupied are standard-issue arthouse adultery, but there's a surpassingly creepy moment when we realize that Polley's angel-voiced folksinger--a victim of the accident, as well as a survivor--was involved in a romantic relationship, kissing by candlelight, with her goddamned father (Tom McCamus). No throwaway moment, that. It will come 'round full circle in a quiet but dramatic showdown in a small room to which she's been summoned as deponent, determined to do the right thing. Over the course of its unspooling, the film gradually yet significantly shifts narrative centres. While the strict point-of-view can change quickly, from shot to shot, there's a general transition in mood. At first, we see the small town through Mitchell's outsider eyes. By the film's midsection, I think we're mainly in thrall to Billy, whose feelings of overwhelming grief and anger at Mitchell's status as carpetbagger seem to direct the tone. By the conclusion, we're in Nicole's head--and it feels good, in part because we feel for the character but also because Polley's performance is so strong. As in Exotica, her character is something of a moral linchpin. In that film, she ended a charade by insisting on truth. In The Sweet Hereafter, Nicole sets things right (and takes a small kind of revenge) by settling on a lie. It's a deliberate and unmistakable swipe at the monster that stalks Sam Dent--not Mitchell Stevens, but her father. He's the one who egregiously violates the trust of a child.
As satisfactory as that is, the film's real emotional touchstones are two distressing flashbacks. In one, Billy watches helplessly as the school bus carrying his children plunges through a too-thin layer of ice into the lake below. (I went around for years telling people that this was the only shot in the history of CGI worth a tinker's damn, because it called absolutely no attention to itself as a visual effect--your heart just sinks through the floor as you watch it happen.) In another, Mitchell recounts the story of a harrowing trip to the hospital he spent with a knife poised at the throat of his baby girl. Only here does it become apparent that the image we gazed upon during the opening credits, that mysterious portrait of tranquility that somehow set the whole movie on edge, was one of Mitchell, a younger and happier man, living in fear of something awful happening to his child. It goes a long way towards humanizing him.
The Sweet Hereafter comes to condemn Mitchell's behaviour without casting him as a villain, exactly. The film is populated by pretty blondes--not only Nicole but also Allison (Stephanie Morgenstern), Zoe's childhood friend, to whom Mitchell spills his guts on a long plane flight. Finally, there's Zoe herself (played by author Banks's daughter Caerthan as an adult), that helpless babe with the stainless-steel blade hovering near her face, who haunts Mitchell's days and nights, reminding him of his failure to raise a child who could be to him what all the parents of Sam Dent hoped and dreamed their own children would become. In that way, his personal story matches grief with regret. He's become a cold, calculating man chasing the promise of a cash settlement through the nightmares of others, and that's its own punishment and tragedy--one more numbing calamity to remind us of that snowy, lonely world outside.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Alliance release of The Sweet Hereafter is a combo pack with a Blu-ray Disc and DVD side by side. Interestingly, the DVD is nothing more than a relabelled copy of the disc that was originally released by New Line Home Video way back in 1998, and it's to New Line's credit that it holds up as well as it does today: Despite the DVD's somewhat harsher look, I can't see a whole lot of extra detail on screen in Alliance's HD reissue, which is not quite as soft as the concurrent reissue of Exotica but still below the clarity you might expect from a Panavision film of this vintage. (If you're counting bits, know that this transfer runs at an overall video bitrate of 29.1 Mbps, pushing it to a dual-layer BD-50, compared to a chintzy 19.9 for Exotica.)
A bigger difference is the colour-timing of the Blu-ray version. Where the DVD of Exotica pulled sharply into the blue and the Blu-ray restored the more natural colour balance I recognized from 35mm screenings, this Blu-ray moves in the opposite direction. The DVD is pretty warm, with rich, pinkish flesh tones muted somewhat in the new colour scheme. Blues go deeper blue, lavenders and purples go aquamarine, and the frame is sometimes overspread with a wash of teal or turquoise. My memory of The Sweet Hereafter's theatrical release isn't vivid enough to tell me whether or not this is a more correct version of the original look, but because, like Exotica, this disc bears a "director approved" sticker, I'm inclined to give Alliance the benefit of the doubt. The new blue-ness does look pretty wonderful in the exterior shots, where it underlines the frigidity that's part and parcel of the picture's mood. Black levels are occasionally a tad milky, but I didn't see anything that looked out of line for a 35mm print. And the Blu-ray is free, as far as I can tell, of the edge-enhancement that's distracting when watching the DVD on a largish screen. Too, the DVD has some problems with blasted-out highlights (as in the cloudy sky behind Polley's performance of "One More Colour") that are fixed in the current colour grade. It's an upgrade, just not as dramatic a leap as Exotica.
The English 5.1 HTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent, as you'd expect. Mychael Danna's instrumentals fill up the surround channels, as do the rubbing and sloshing noises of that car wash in the opening scene. Elsewhere, the multichannel soundstage is essential for conveying the richness and ambition of a soundmix that relies on a host of sound effects, musical tones, and other assorted noises to help ease the abrupt transitions from scene to scene and timeframe to timeframe in the non-linear narrative. The range, clarity, and dynamism of the lossless audio really shine. The Blu-ray also offers the Dolby Digital 5.1 music-only audio track that New Line featured on the DVD, adding one more layer of replayability.
Some, but not all, of the DVD's extras are duplicated on the Blu-ray. You'll have to pop in the DVD if you want to see the original text for Robert Browning's version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, with illustrations by Kate Greenaway. (I clicked around the BD for an awful long time before I figured that out.) But the Blu-ray has two different director commentaries--the first, from 1997, has Egoyan chatting with Russell Banks about, mainly, the changes he made from the novel in his screenplay. Based on what we hear, Banks is either just an extremely nice guy or genuinely impressed by what Egoyan did with his work; the resulting gabfest is something of a master class in the art of adaptation. The second is new and spotlights Egoyan's solo discussion of the original inspiration for The Sweet Hereafter (and, perhaps, some aspects of Exotica), which was a girl he fancied once upon a time, now passed away, who declined to date him because she was already involved in a sexual relationship with her father. (There are no skeevy details, in case you're curious--only the broadest outlines of the story. I'm sure people who know something about the Toronto theatre scene know exactly who he's talking about, but he doesn't reveal her identity outright.) Egoyan was taken by the strangeness of this relationship, which apparently stuck in his head for many years.
Egoyan is generous with insight on what he was thinking as The Sweet Hereafter was being made, down to how it was (dramatically) reshaped in the editorial process. He also comments specifically on the ways that a film can get away from its maker once it finds an audience, noting that many viewers (I'd count myself among them) have a different interpretation of Nicole's motivations than he did, wrapped up as he was in his personal experiences. It's also amusing to see how the precise circumstances of a movie's making can escape even its director. At one point during the original DVD commentary, he says that an on-screen goof happened because the relatively poor picture quality you used to get when you edited a film digitally on the Avid kept him from seeing it in the cutting room. However, during the new Blu-ray commentary, he notes wistfully that The Sweet Hereafter was the last project he cut on film, using a Steenbeck. Of course it's one or the other--but it can't be both.
The Blu-ray also contains "Before and After The Sweet Hereafter," a useful collection of 30-odd minutes of SD footage from an appearance by Egoyan and Banks that features Banks reading key passages from the book, including Nicole's description of her sexual abuse. Curiously, he says, he often hears from readers who gloss over that bit to the point where they're surprised to see a similar scene in the film. Also on board is an episode of "Charlie Rose" from late 1997 or early 1998, contemporaneous with the film's release, in which zzzzzz.
Topping off the BD are American and Canadian trailers for the film. The U.S. version is cringeworthy, desperately trying to tease the storyline of a tense legal thriller out of Egoyan's gentle little drama.