Film Reviews

The Sweet Hereafter Atom Egoyan

Rating - 10/10

There are a few things that can emotionally bond one to a film, song, or art object forever.  One is if it touches and perfects a feeling that one has experienced, such that even if it is brutally painful the experience of reliving it through somebody else's vision is cathartic and positive.  Another is if it captures emotions and experiences completely disparate from those of the viewer, but with such clarity and humanity as to spur a new empathy, getting one in close touch with another swath of humanity heretofore unconsidered.  Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter does both with a power few movies have achieved for me. 

When I first saw The Sweet Hereafter in the late '90s, I was tremendously moved and impressed, if left a bit cold by its physical and characteristic frostiness.  Within the cold atmosphere, however, were sequences of such fiery and naked soulfulness that I was afraid to revisit it for awhile, even though my impressions were indelible.  This was, uncoincidentally, the age when I started to drift away from hyperactive Tarantino knock-offs and made my first tentative steps into the Bergman pantheon.  I have since watched a number of affecting, lacerating quiet character dramas.  The Sweet Hereafter still towers over most of them, and still frightens me enough that I tend to take a few years between viewings.  As I have matured (this is a very relative term, and it may be better just to just say I have "aged"), Egoyan's film has not diminished, but had a more profound effect on me with each visitation.

As for the broadly relateable aspect, I think everybody has mistakes in their past they would love to relive but cannot (this is the pretentious form of "can't"), or something they lost that cannot be replaced by anything, or a development out of their control that profoundly affected them negatively.  I hope never to meet the monster who cannot relate to any of this. 

Yes, I live right next door to Virginia Beach, a hideous soul vacuum that seems from here to be the nastiest, shallowest pustule of all the sickness that landed on this beautiful expanse from Europe in 1607 (note to self: need to review Malick's amazing meditation on the Virginia myth, The New World, for No Ripcord soon).  The city (out state's largest) is a bland, grotesque celebration of isolationist consumerism, a resort city without any of the unique charm that should earn it that distinction.  Just a wasteland of mindless, undifferentiated box stores and equally vacuous, self-superior citizens endlessly subsidized by a mediocre mid-Atlantic beach with choppy waters.  There is no there there, but the city is smugly convinced that it is the only there anywhere, and there is nothing to life beyond the its bathetic expanse.  This is a fairly vitriolic and unrelated-to-the-film tangeant, so I apologize.  To try and wrap it up, it is everything frozen rural Canada is not.  Still, despite the mind-boggling triviality Virginia Beach seems to breed into its children (and, to be fair, some of my best friends and the deepest souls I have met are Virginia Beachers, but it is still more fun to generalize), I deeply believe that there are traumas and residual traces of humanity in the citizenry of this awful city that can, will, and have been deeply moved by The Sweet Hereafter.

On the second note, many of the main plotlines of The Sweet Hereafter remain alien to me.  I have never had children, much less been made to consider how I might react to the loss of them.  I have nieces and a single nephew whom I love as much as anybody, but I've always had the luxury of an uncle's remove, where I can hand them off to parents or grandparents after I've gotten to soak in their love and they're getting kind of annoying. 

Watching The Sweet Hereafter, however, Egoyan uses every resource available to subtly convey the shattering trauma of such a loss.  The cinematography finds sensitive, painterly illustrations of transcendent togetherness and selflessness, then juxtaposes it with unforgettable images of isolation, pain, loneliness and loss.  I know I'm making this sound like a lot of fun, but its actually pretty traumatic.  The camera moves sometimes with a drift evoking the reverie of selective memory and sometimes with a chilling stillness that captures a harsh reality that cannot be escaped from in real time.  The screenplay is lyrical and fanciful at times, but allows its characters to vent raw pain at length. 

Egoyan refuses to flinch or reduce throughout.  He commands his ensemble masterfully, dredging frightfully great performances from nearly everybody who speaks.  Two central performances illustrate this best.  Ian Holm, an estranged parent and hollow soul here, and Sarah Polley, a lost child and violated innocent here, deliver their career-best performances from opposite ends of the spectrum.  This is no small praise for two enormous talents, and they collaborate in anchoring a story that could have quickly spun into melodramatic drivel without their contributions.  Along with Egoyan, they create a powerful experience that forces me to confront my own rues and regrets while embroiling me in a life I have not yet and may never live.  Then I cry in the shower and watch nothing but madcap comedies for a month.  Suffice it to say, The Sweet Hereafter is one of the best movies I have ever seen.