Sweet may be a tad bit misleading, tragic and heart wrenching might be more apropos!
Screenplay By: Atom Egoyan
Directed By: Atom Egoyan
Movies can examine life as we know it, they can also examine death, but sometimes they can examine the struggle to survive after death. The Sweet Hereafter is about many things. It’s main issue is the struggle to go on for people that have suffered some sort of death. Ian Holm’s Mitchell Stephens struggles to go on after the hypothetical death of his drug ridden daughter. Nicole struggles to go on after the death of her legs and and the death of her innocence at the hands of her father. Her father, Sam, struggles to go on after the death of his image of his daughter following the accident. In the tiniest, but most touching, performance, Gabrielle Rose struggles to continue after the death of many of her children on the doomed bus. Death isn’t the main issue of The Sweet Hereafter, although it is touched upon, the struggle to stay alive after death has touched you dominates the entire running time of The Sweet Hereafter.
The character of Dolores ends up being the most tragic figure in the entire movie. She made a mistake and an accident ensued. Because of that accident she lost many of the kids that she considered her own. But, more than that she lost her town. The town needed someone to blame, someone to compensate the families of the dead children, and Dolores became the scapegoat. In every moment she is on screen Gabrielle Rose delivers the picture of a woman destroyed. She is a woman that has had her life taken away, but she has no intention of fighting to get it back because just like the town, she blames herself. Much like the entire of The Sweet Hereafter, there is no happy ending on the horizon for Dolores, merely the everyday struggle of living and dealing with the tragedy.
A young Sarah Polley is sublime as Nicole Burnell. She is so nuanced in her portrayal of the trapped in teenager that you wonder why she isn’t getting strong roles like this today. But, in The Sweet Hereafter she is innocent for every minute she is on screen sans two. In those two minutes she crashes through the veil of innocence and exacts the revenge of someone who can’t deal with what life has brought to her. I have no doubt that in Nicole’s mind she would be better off dead, but that isn’t the hand she was dealt. She doesn’t know how to cope with what has happened to her, the loss of “love” in her fathers eyes for her and the loss of her future. She has had all her dreams taken away from her so in one last ditch cry against fate she takes what petty dreams her father may have away from him.
Ian Holm is an actor that for some reason never gets much mention among the great actors of any generation. I don’t know why this is, maybe it is because he has derived most of his fame from his turns as iconic science fiction/fantasy characters. Be that as it may, Holm delivers a lesson to any young actors out there on the art of subtlety in The Sweet Hereafter. He is viewed by some of the townsfolk as an ambulance chaser, but all you need to do is look at the deadness in his eyes when money is brought up or listen to the tone in his voice when he talks about his daughters drug addictions and you see that is not the case at all. His character of Mitchell is going through the motions in his life. He has lost his wife and his daughter and all he is waiting for is that inevitable day when he will get the call that his daughter is physically dead. He sits in his car for an inexorable amount of time during a botched car wash because the car wash should take care of itself. He can’t affect any of his surroundings, so why would a malfunctioning car wash be any different? Ian Holm delivers a quiet and subtle performance that ends up more devastating than the loudest of performances could ever hope to be.
Outside of the more ethereal matters that The Sweet Hereafter tackles, there is the bluntness of its imagery and evocative music. The cinematography and camera work is gorgeous, and it combines with the music to create the image of a shattered, questioning world without the actors ever having to utter a single world. There isn’t a single bad thing I can say about The Sweet Hereafter, it is a movie of perfection. As cliche as it may be, as well as terse, The Sweet Hereafter is a movie you need to experience. I wish I could extol the virtues of this movie better than a simple “you need to experience it” but, I am nowhere near as subtle or intelligent as the film I just took in.