Paying the Piper

With 1994's Exotica, Atom Egoyan secured his reputation as Canada's leading director; his new film, The Sweet Hereafter, based on a celebrated novel by Russell Banks, should solidify Egoyan's hold on that title. Egoyan's work in general is small-scale enough to seem arty and plain enough to be accessible.

The Sweet Hereafter doesn't break out of this vein, but in some ways it seems a step up for Egoyan, more mature and assured than some of his earlier work and sparked by a characteristically brilliant performance by Ian Holm, who approaches (but doesn't quite match) his masterful work in Gavin Millar's 1985 DreamChild. Even Holm's second-best is better than most actors' best.

Holm plays Mitchell Stephens, a personal injury lawyer from an unspecified big city who rushes to Sam Dent, a small British Columbia town, after a freak school bus accident has killed more than a dozen of the community's children. The school board's insurance carrier has provided some recompense, but Mitch smells a lot more money. Descending on the grief-stricken parents, he makes a convincing pitch for a class-action suit against some bigger fish; he names a few possible targets, including the bus manufacturer and the company that made the guardrail that the bus broke through as it left the road. "There are no accidents," he declaims. "Somebody must be held accountable. There is no compensation for the loss of your child, but we must send a message to the fat cats so that no more children die."

It's clear early on that Mitch is a pro: He cannily sizes up and targets each family's weak points. The only major holdout is rugged individualist Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), who doesn't buy the attorney's spiel. Billy is so offended by the idea of making money off the tragedy that he actively tries to break up the lawsuit (the details of which are never specified). And he has a unique perspective compared to the rest of the parents: He's the only one who actually witnessed the crash.

Mitch may indeed be in it for the money -- Egoyan and Holm cleverly deny us a sure handle on his motivation -- but there are signs that he may believe his own arguments. He genuinely appears to grieve for the parents' tragic loss; at the same time, he is avenging the virtual loss of his own daughter, a junkie who calls only to squeeze him for money. "Something terrible has happened that's taking our children away," he says in an exasperated monologue that, on its surface, attempts to persuade Ansell to join the cause. But Mitch is so caught up in his own words that even he doesn't seem to know quite what he's talking about.

Egoyan tells his story out of chronological order, and his jumbling defies easy reordering. He intercuts Mitch's activities in the town with the events leading up to the accident and with a later plane trip, during which Mitch sits next to a successful former schoolmate of his daughter. Throughout, the story is echoed in quotes from Robert Browning's poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," about another town that lost its children. Nicole (Sarah Polley), a teen who survived the wreck, reads the poem aloud to younger children.

The Browning parallel suggests a subtext with which The Sweet Hereafter never clearly deals: After all, the people of Hamelin lost their children as a result of their own greed. And for all of Mitch's talk about how we've already lost our kids to the modern world, we see little evidence that the parents of Sam Dent have betrayed or undervalued their offspring. Whatever their problems, most of the parents -- with one very notable exception -- seem to love and look out for their children.

It is that notable exception that further obscures the allegory at the heart of Egoyan's tale. This single betrayal -- without giving away details, it's the same traumatic plot hook that has been used in quite a few of the dramas I've seen recently -- leads to Mitch's and the town's downfall. There may be some cosmic justice to all of Sam Dent paying for one parent's sins, but if that's so, Egoyan fails to make the case.

For all its mystery and stylistic finesse, there is something vaguely plodding about The Sweet Hereafter. It has a tinge of that mawkish earnestness that plagues so many Canadian films, the work of David Cronenberg and comic surrealist Guy Madden excepted.

Despite the accolades accorded The Sweet Hereafter (it scored big at Cannes, winning three awards, including the Grand Prix), the film never generates as much heat as it intends to. What's even worse is that The Sweet Hereafter aspires to allegory but loses itself in muddy sentimentalism.

The Sweet Hereafter.
Directed and written by Atom Egoyan; based on the novel by Russell Banks; with Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, and Bruce Greenwood.


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