Wednesday, December 3, 2008

“No, not mean. Just very angry.”

After being thoroughly taken in by Atom Egoyan's Exotica, I bumped another of his movies to the top of my Netflix queue, The Sweet Hereafter.

Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Russell Banks) tells the story of how a tragic school bus accident forever changes a small mountain town, and how easily the grieving process can be disrupted and distorted. Following a school bus accident that takes the lives of over 20 children, a lawyer named Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) arrives in town, intent on initiating a law suit. As he works his way through family after family, his presence confuses the town and disrupts its ability to deal with the tragedy. The mettle of all involved, including Stevens, is called into question as the impending lawsuit drives a schism through the already fractured town.

The premise of a lawyer exploiting the deaths of children sounds like it could easily have been unwatchably depressing, yet The Sweet Hereafter has less a feeling of crushing depression than a feeling of exhausted resignation. It is definitely sad, but never exploitative or melodramatic. The town, in its state of perpetual shock, seems coldly calm as anger, blame, confusion, pain, and loss all simmer below the surface. There are no grand scenes or gestures, but simply a town full of people, who all know each other, trust each other, who are all trying to deal quietly with the same personal and shared tragedy.

Egoyan dismantles the narrative and weaves it back together into a single coherent tapestry, painting a broad portrait of the town and its people. Even though scenes jump back and forth in time, the story never seems disjointed, flashbacks to known and unknown times flow coherently in and out of the ongoing story. The viewer is ultimately given not just a story, but a panoramic understanding of the characters and the small world they inhabit. Matching the broad narrative, the film is filled with stunning, beautiful photography of the small snowy mountain town. Large skies and monstrous snow-capped mountains fill the frame, giving the town a harsh and natural beauty, making the town look so small and isolated in an intimidatingly large world.

The acting is fantastic throughout. Be it Ian Holm as the lawyer whose motivation has less and less to do with money, the bus driver who must deal with the knowledge that she was behind the wheel when the bus crashed, or any number of the parents dealing with the death of their children. An eighteen year old Sarah Polley deserves special recognition as the lone child to survive the crash. She delivers a subtle and nuanced portrayal of a girl whose world is thoroughly and irreversibly changed.

The film is beautiful and powerful, but never melodramatic or exploitative. The story is twisted, subtle, and confusing, but never frustrating. Just as in life, there are no clear motivations, no good guys or bad guys, no complete resolutions. Everything moves forward, for better or worse, one day at a time. No faster, no slower.

Just as with Exotica, at the end of the film, I was left thinking about The Sweet Hereafter long after it was finished. I went to bed thinking about it and resuming thinking about it as soon as I woke up. If all of Egoyan's films are this deeply affecting, I am more than willing to dive completely into his filmography. I think I liked Exotica better, but acknowledge that The Sweet Hereafter was probably a better movie. But really, it doesn't matter, they were both amazing films, and both deserve to be watched.

[Note: I noticed a bizarre connection between this film and the Liars' song "They Don't Want Your Corn – They Want Your Kids" off of They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. I plan on writing up a brief entry on this soon, so look out.]

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