Critically acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan needs no introduction for the true cinemaphile. Most likely you are already familiar with his repertoire of socially charged, emotionally damaged films – damaged as in like ‘us’, damaged as in like ‘life’. His list of film credits extend well before The Sweet Hereafter and well beyond – films like Calendar (1993) and Felicia’s Journey (1999) to name just a few. His latest film, Chloe starring Liam Neeson and Juliane Moore is in theaters now – an exploration of and the attempt at knowing the hearts and minds of those closest to you only to realize everything comes with a price; sometimes you can’t afford the things you should never hope for.
Egoyan’s sense of examination of the human spirit seems obvious, if not necessary in his films; watching an Egoyan film reminds me of falling off a bicycle – at first you can’t believe the sensation of flying racing down a hill until you hit something and lose all control over the consequences of your actions. His characters are lost, sometimes inside themselves but always poised for something else as though breathing makes it so. Egoyan doesn’t wait for you to catch up – he prefers non-linear storytelling and the manipulation of time in order to establish specific emotions and hopped for connections to his often flawed, culpable characters. These flaws are familiar and accessible; they make us sad and happy often in the same instant. This is not to say you should expect laugh out loud humor but rather funny bits that cohabitats with the weight of everydayness and as such serve as transitions much the way our own lives are dotted with good days and bad. Atom Egoyan is a consummate actor’s director in that he builds first the foundation of character followed immediately by story – plot comes later once the groundwork is done so that fully realized people have a place to land and take off from. The Sweet Hereafter marks a triumph of people like us or others in our periphery to adapt and survive, to suffer and ultimately corral tragedy and come to know it as well as our own face in the mirror.
The Sweet Hereafter isn’t for everyone any more than Tarantino can change the minds of the most ardent pacifist that war is sometimes necessary and dying or the threat of dying comes first in a story, not last. The Sweet Hereafter is all at once weighed down by a singular tragic event, an event that reveals to these characters that they share a common fate – namely the realization that in death there is life, there is a continuance of shoddy footfalls traipsing through familiar as though at any moment the burden of loss will reunite you with the loved ones you so desperately yearn for. It is this hope for coming through the tragedy that forms the substrate for life, which provides solid ground that has not changed – only your perspective of it has. Egoyan masterfully weaves varying personalities in this story of loss and rebirth, of forgiveness and connection to others. He makes us cry and only after some purposefully indirect route to the other side does he offer us a tissue for our tears.
Ian Holm, a bewildered ambulance chasing lawyer with a muddy past that is hauntingly present in his drug addicted daughter, is heartbreaking and captivating – the clutter of unspoken truth and isolation from himself so complete that one is desperate for every shard of information Egoyan issues along his journey. Seemingly insensitive to the loss of their children, Holms prods the families and assures them ‘someone is responsible and someone must pay for the death of your children’. With each step closer to learning of his tragic past we come dangerously close to introspection and admiration – if only we too could gather the courage to excise our own demons. Sarah Polley delivers a striking performance as the only survivor of the bus accident, confined to a wheelchair and the knowledge that her father’s inappropriate closeness before the accident has ended much the way the use of her legs has. She longs for a return to her former self yet at the same time, deep down inside, she realizes the person she has become would never survive the transition back. She is forced to confront an altered life and whether or not to go along with everyone for the sake of a big pay off by the insurance company. No one is given a pass in Egoyan’s films and as such everyone must pay with their very person until inevitably he rings them out, shakes out the wrinkles and puts them aside to rest, to prepare for the rest of their new life.
Egoyan’s films serve as a rite of passage for his characters and his audience, for an opportunity to look inward on the demons we carry and find strength in awareness. His characters seem renewed, not resolved; the moments of The Sweet Hereafter are not concluded but rather present like a dream or nightmare that informs tomorrow and the tomorrow after that, in a film or in our lives.