All of Atom Egoyan’s films are, in one way or another, about loss. But “The Sweet Hereafter,” bitterly ironic title and all, takes it to new realms of searing purity. It’s the first film Egoyan, a Canadian of Armenian descent, has shot from a script based on someone else’s work, in this case Russell Banks’s stark, troubling account of the effect on a small town of a school bus crash that kills 14 children. It’s a shattering film, yet a cathartic one, hauntingly, unsettlingly beautiful, unerringly encompassing a web of deep, complicated, conflicting emotions, moving Egoyan from cerebral stylist to important filmmaker in full possession of a distinctive vision.
“The Sweet Hereafter” merges Egoyan’s hypnotically elliptical style with powerful, aching feelings whose impact is all the more jolting for being understated or, in some cases, unstated. Egoyan has always had an eye, and he does a lot with the wintry landscape surrounding the small Canadian mountain town of Sam Dent, B.C., making it stand for the deep freeze into which the emotions of the townspeople have slid, just as the school bus slid through ice covering a lake after crashing through a guardrail. The sense of community - at best precarious before the tragedy - is curdled with barely repressed anger over a string of betrayals, of which the crash is only the latest.
The once-functioning town is an emotional powder keg, and all that’s needed to set it off is the arrival of a big-city lawyer played with tight-lipped messianic fervor by Ian Holm. Somebody - the municipality, the bus manufacturer, somebody - should pay, he argues as he insistently tries to enlist all the parents in a class action suit. He’s not exactly an impartial outsider. He’s got his own troubles. He’s imploding with pain over the frailty of his grown daughter (played by Caerthan Banks, the novelist’s daughter), a drug addict who phones him at intervals, in desperation, from this pay phone or that, in this city or that.
A raw ache arising from children lost to parents is played out with piercing intensity right from the start, as Holm visits a silently raging ex-hippie couple (Arsinee Khanjian and Earl Pastko) unable to mourn their adopted son. Holm’s cold fire is catching, spreading to the various parents, but not all of them. Some - most notably Bruce Greenwood’s single father, who saw the crash as he was following the school bus in his truck - reject him as an interfering outsider, whose presence will postpone healing. Others remain ambiguous, like the events themselves, which Egoyan gradually reveals in snatches of elliptical flashback.
The climax comes in a decisive action taken by a survivor of a disaster no less harrowing. Egoyan ups the ante by making us feel the closing in of a spiritual darkness from which you hope the still hammered survivors will emerge. Especially unforgettable is Sarah Polley’s pretty teenager, whose father is a little too close to her, and who harbors, you begin to suspect, a secret as shattering as any in the unhappy village.
In making the inevitable changes to the novel, including the introduction of a Pied Piper figure, Egoyan remains true to its layered complexity. The acting, from Egoyan regulars and newcomers alike, is on target. There’s a melancholy integrity in “The Sweet Hereafter,” in its isolated survivors and in its wounded clinging to one another, and at their hard-won eventual vision of closure and continuance that few films even try for, let alone match.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Sweet Hereafter” Location: Lincoln Heights Cinema Art Credits: Directed and written by Atom Egoyan based on a novel by Russell Banks, starring Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus, Gabrielle Rose, Arsinee Khanjian, Alberta Watson, Maury Chaykin, Brooke Johnson, Earl Pastko, David Hemblen, Stephanie Morgenstern, Caerthan Banks Running time: 1:50 Rating: R