Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)

Some films embrace style but lack substance and life. Others fumble by believing they can make an audience care for a character just by having a traumatic situation beleaguer him early on. The Sweet Hereafter by Canadian director Atom Egoyan suffers from all of the above syndromes. The Sweet Hereafter is not a bad film, but it certainly is not a great film. The film also suffers from some other minor flaws, as well; primarily an anomic screenplay by Egoyan, who adapted the novel of the same name by Russell Banks. The film follows the aftermath of a 1995 schoolbus crash that killed many of the children in a remote Canadian mountain town. A big city lawyer named Mitchell Stevens jumps on the case to extract compensations for the victims. His reason, other than greed, is that his daughter, Zoe is a drug addict who has been using him emotionally. Stevens is a small devious man and he gets a number of the local families who lost children to take up arms against the government. The film is non-linear, and herein lies a major problem. Not that linearity is the main problem of The Sweet Hereafter, for many films excel at non-linear structure. The film does not stay with Stevens, but jumps about to a host of characters who, after first viewing, we are left wondering who they are and what relation do they bear to the other characters. The Sweet Hereafter is plagued by script and character development problems. Then there is the unnecessary complication of a PC theme-incest, in which one of the older girls, Nichole Burnell hurt in the crash to the point of possibly being paralyzed for life, is being incested by her long haired dad, Sam. This leads to the culmination of the film, wherein the girl ultimately destroys Stevens’ case by lying about the crash being an accident, and blames the schoolbus driver, Dolores Driscoll, for speeding on an icy mountain road. The film leads us to believe via the theme music and lighting, that this lie is somehow a good thing, for it helps prevent her dad from getting a large settlement from the class action lawsuit Stevens is deposing her for. But, all it does is make her as bad as the rest of the greedy townsfolk, for she blames an innocent woman for the accident.Yet, just as the force-fed tale of Stevens and his daughter induces any empathy, neither does the incident of incest really move the viewer. Partly this is because the girl clearly engages in the fantasy element of the ‘romance,’ but the daughter’s receptivity to it (which seems forced, even though there are abused females who feel no ill will toward their abusers). These tales resolve themselves, but not in a realistic fashion. The girl is also hamhandedly used as a symbol when she recites the poem The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, by Robert Browning. The idea of lost children is so manifestly obvious in the film that the reason Egoyan adds this is puzzling, except that he bizarrely felt the loss aspect is not evident enough. It is. The opening scene of the film, where Stevens is in a car wash, heading out of the darkness and toward the light, is equally embarrassing in its condescension. The use of the non-linear structure also fails for a primary reason, it ruins the whole dramatic structure of the tale. Since we know what happens early in the film (save for a few minor details), because of Stevens’ reactions and body language, there is little drama in the girl’s testimonial lie. The whole flashback within the flashforward does not work for the lighting and dreaminess is so gauzey, saccharine, and so, ‘This is the big moment of the film,’ that the viewer almost feels embarrassed at Egoyan’s cluelessness at the inappropriateness of it all. The Sweet Hereafter simply is not that deep of a film, and had it gone a more standard route, it actually would have worked better. Simply put, a tragic subject matter does not automatically make for a deep film. The Sweet Hereafter does not rise to the heights of a film by a master like Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, nor Yasujiro Ozu.

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