The Sweet Hereafter
directed by Atom Egoyan
Fine Line, 1997

Midway through an automatic carwash, Mitchell Stephens' car gets stuck. Stephens calls for help on his cell phone, but the machinery is so loud he can't hear; then he loses his connection. Eventually he leaves the car to get help; but it's not there. The gas station office is empty. There's nothing left for him to do but push on, and drip.

That scene replays itself in a number of ways before The Sweet Hereafter comes to its not-so-sweet conclusion, in large part because Stephens is a man on the verge of a meltdown.

He's lost his wife to divorce and his daughter to drugs. He has little to look back on, nothing to look forward to and a job that's tearing apart a small Canadian town suffering from its own horrific loss.

A school bus driven by a local woman (Gabrielle Rose) has slid off a road, down a bank and across a frozen lake, where it broke through the ice. The driver and a teen-age girl escaped; more than 20 of the small town's children drowned. Stephens, a big-city lawyer, is there to convince the good townsfolk to bring a class-action suit against whoever can be blamed for the crash. That makes Stephens either an avenging angel or an itchy palm looking for a deep pocket, depending on your point of view.

Accomplished actor Ian Holm (Alien, Chariots of Fire, The Madness of King George) wrings every last drop of ice water from Stephens' veins to bring us a portrait of the consummate professional at work, telling people that he's there "to give their anger a voice."

But this is no one-dimensional performance. Holm is just as good at relating how he once sat in a car with a knife to his 3-year-old daughter's throat, prepared to perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary to save her life en route to a hospital. It's another recurring image that makes The Sweet Hereafter a recurring nightmare of a film.

Yet Holm is matched scene for scene by Bruce Greenwood, who's come a long away since Malibu Bikini Shop. Greenwood plays Billy Ansell, a single dad who loses two children in the crash, but prefers that his neighbors help one another.

He's aided in his unpopular chore by the sole student survivor of the crash (Sarah Polley), who ultimately displays more sense than the townsfolk and more wiles than Mitchell, though it's never entirely clear why.

Adding to the ominous nature of the proceedings are the white-on-white Canadian landscape and low camera angles that leave you with a constant sense of being loomed over. Director Atom Egoyan has shot Sweet Hereafter as if it were a horror film -- suggesting that, in many ways, it is.

Films like The Sweet Hereafter rarely do well at the box office, and with good reason. There's no sense of escapism here, or even adventure: just a town full of people and a lawyer full of pain coming face to face with themselves. They don't necessarily like what they see. But you will.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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