Review: The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

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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.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill

4 responses to “Review: The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

  1. I couldn’t have written it better myself. I really like this film and the mature manner in which is deals with the subject matter. The acting is stellar across the board. It’s such a depressing, sad story yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

    I think Polley decided to go into directing later in her career if I’m not mistaken. She also divides her time between American and Canadian (where she is from) projects. I imagine her Canadian material, much like a lot of Canadian material in general, doesn’t get the privilege of being widely seen in the U.S. I suppose that’s why it would appear as though she isn’t that popular, although in truth she works a lot.

  2. Bill Thompson

    She was quite a surprise to me in this film. I always thought of her as the hot chick in the recent remake of Dawn Of The Dead. I enjoyed that movie, and I thought she was very good in her part, but I didn’t realize she had this type of depth inside of her. After seeing her in The Sweet Hereafter I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to make it a point to see more of her work, as well as that of the director, Egoyan.

  3. Great review. I agree with you on every point in terms of the film’s merits…though I’m not so sure Nicole was so innocent spare for two moments. I thought Polley was great to show how quietly tortured Nicole was — and how mixed-up and perverted the men in her life were — most obviously her father, but also more subtly Billy and the lawyer. Hers was a masterfully nuanced performance in a perfect film. It is a shame she hasn’t had something a role this amazing since…though it’s interesting she has turned to directing (with “Away from Her” that I haven’t seen yet).

    At any rate, I recently named “The Sweet Hereafter” the Best Film of the 1990’s:

    http://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2009/10/01/revisiting-the-sweet-hereafter-the-best-film-of-the-1990s/

  4. I’ve liked Polley in everything I’ve seen her in. She may not have had as important or as commanding of a role as The Sweet Hereafter, but she’s been consistently great in smaller roles.

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