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'Sweet Hereafter': A Cry of Hope

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 1997

  Movie Critic

Atom Egoyan
Ian Holm;
Maury Chaykin;
Gabrielle Rose;
Peter Donaldson;
Bruce Greenwood;
David Hemblen;
Brooke Johnson
Running Time:
1 hour, 40 minutes
For the intense portrayal of a bus accident and graphic sexual content
Here's one way to look at it: Man is a meaning-seeking creature.

Pitiful being, he cannot accept the random cruelty of the universe. That is his biggest failing, the source of his unhappiness and possibly of his nobility as well. He paws through disasters with but one question for God: Why? And God never answers.

He certainly doesn't answer in Atom Egoyan's superb "The Sweet Hereafter," which watches a mad, vain scrambler seeking to impart his own meaning on someone else's terrifying disaster. As derived from the intense Russell Banks novel, the story follows lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) on his peregrinations through a western Canadian town where a school bus has recently fallen through the ice, drowning 14 children and leaving an enamel of grief as blinding as the snow that blankets the place.

This lawyer: greedhead or pilgrim of pain?

This town: victim of horrid coincidence or of God's vengeance?

This story: remembered myth or spontaneous occurrence?

The answer to the questions is: All of the above. And one more thing is certain, and that is uncertainty. The movie is of the mode called postmodernism, which no one understands but everyone recognizes. To borrow from Kurt Vonnegut, its story has come unstuck in time, and though the narrative materials are eventually clarified, we seem to drift for a period between now and then, here and there. Some people can't handle this willed ambiguity and grow restless, if not anxious, in the absence of a clear chronology. But like "The English Patient," the chronological looseness is part of the pleasure of the piece, which magically reassembles in the last reel into something strong, lucid and compellingly powerful.

Basically, its "now" appears to be a plane ride in which Stephens returns, in defeat, from his trip. As he tells the story to his seatmate, a friend of his daughter, the whole story emerges in bright and tragic vignettes, seen from a dozen perspectives, revealing the heart of the observer.

It turns out that in one sense, it's the most old-fashioned of narrative archetypes, the small-town story. Sam Dent, as the place is named, picturesque in the Canadian Rockies, soon reveals itself to be another in the form revealed by Grace Metalious all those years earlier in "Peyton Place," a caldron of promiscuity, alcoholism, even some terrifying sexual child abuse.

In his recollection, as he bobs about the town in support of his lawsuits against the school board, the county that maintains the road and hires the driver, even the bus manufacturer, in search of a villain, any villain, Stephens encounters instead human weakness and culpability in all its forms. A was sleeping with B, C was molesting his daughter, D was cheating on her husband and on and on.

On top of this, Egoyan adds something that Banks never thought of. That's an overlay of myth, as he impresses Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin Town" on the events as if to ask the question, that eternal question: Who took the children? Who was the piper? Why did the portal in the mountain -- an actual portal in the ice at the bottom of the mountain in the movie's most shattering scene -- why did the portal open up and why did they disappear? As the saying goes: You've got to pay the piper. Why didn't the townspeople pay the piper?

But the final ambiguity is the lawyer himself. As it advances, the film makes clear he's not merely in search of wealth (though he may be), but driven by the need to impose meaning. He wants to inflict punishment on them. Them? Oh, you know: Them, they, the unknown agents of all destruction, workers for Lucifer, corporate, municipal or ecclesiastical, as the case may be. For he is also a parent in mourning. His daughter, Zoe, whom he once loved so much that he went beyond taboo and attempted to save her life with an emergency tracheotomy, taking upon himself the moral weight of cutting into his own daughter's flesh. Zoe is among the lost, not in this accident, but in another, larger accident called society.

Zoe phones him, wheedles for money, pretends to be his old Zoe, but she is clearly of that subset of living dead, the hopelessly addicted, her soul crippled with lust for heroin, her immune system finally overcome. We realize that the lawyer has gone west seeking meaning in the larger society of a town of lost children in hope of finding meaning in his own lost child.

Of course, it's hopeless. One can, after all, never know the reasons and the meanings. But there's something so human in the attempt that the movie, despite the crushing weight of the pain it contains, ultimately feels hopeful. The sweet hereafter of the title is that zone of wisdom where we ultimately come to accept the unacceptable and in some provisional, broken way, go on living.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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