Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Fourteen

#14 — The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)
I tend to be hard on films that present narratives with fractured chronologies, but that’s only because I’ve seen the technique done perfectly, exactly right. Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter is based upon a novel written by Russell Banks. The story deals with the aftermath of a school bus crash in a small town that resulted in the death of most of the children aboard. The residents of the insular Canadian burg are understandably devastated, shell-shocked as they try to proceed with the eternal echo of lives lost far too young hanging in the frigid air. Their agony is stirred further by the arrival of a lawyer trying to persuade them that a class-action lawsuit will be the best salve for their emotional wounds.

Egoyan presents this somberly and with delicate care. More notably, he jumbles the timeframe of the story, presenting scenes out of order. He doesn’t do this with some sort of framing sequence or slow dissolves to flashbacks, nothing intended to allow viewers to get their bearings. Shifts happen without warning, without the signals developed and agreed upon over decades of narrative filmmaking. The way Egoyan assembles his story can even seem arbitrary at times, as if the film’s primary goal is to capture the disorientating nature of overwhelming grief. Confusion coexists with the sensation of emotions that can swerve in any direction at any time, in much the same way that a person in deep mourning can’t pull their own wracked soul, mind and heart into proper working order even though the cause of the dismay can be easily pinpointed. They sit numbly waiting for it to pass, and Egoyan’s expert disordering of the tale conveys their pained view of a world out of sorts. It is a film built by feel. One thing may lead to another and then to another, but maybe that doesn’t necessitate telling the story that way. Maybe some greater, graver truths can be found by playing fast and loose with the when of it all.

This purposefulness is the most significant reason that Egoyan’s film succeeds while most of the Rubik’s narratives that followed in subsequent years came across as if they were trying to graft importance onto their wan, hackneyed storylines. The Sweet Hereafter also benefits from the attention Egoyan gives to the characters, particularly the lawyer. As played by Ian Holm, he is a man adrift in his own way, dealing with his damaged daughter in a relationship that rests uneasily on a fault line. He has lost his child just as surely as the sorrowful people he is soliciting as clients, and, like them, he can be staggered by the thought of it at any moment. Holm’s performance is masterful, an example of building something monumental out of the quietest moments, like the flickers in his eyes or a hint of troubled hesitancy in a conversation. He carries the weight of a whole battered life upon him, moving slowly, carefully with the knowledge that it’s not just the ice underfoot that’s treacherous. All of existence, even the parts of it that seem the safest, is a dangerous, daunting place that can leave a person gasping for air, tragically unable to make sense of everything before them.

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