The Sweet Hereafter – 1997 – dir. Atom Egoyan
(Filmmaker and author quotes from DVD commentary)
Adapted from a Russell Banks book and directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter is the sublime, aching story of a fatal school bus accident in rural Canada. Most of the town’s children are killed as a result, and city lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) travels to the town to fan the flames of confusion and anger into a potentially lucrative class action lawsuit. However, the town’s sorrow mirrors Mitchell’s own personal drama: the loss of his daughter to drugs and darker forces still. The themes of confinement are rife within this drama of parents, children, lovers, and courage.
The themes of space and confinement are apparent within the film’s opening shot: dappled moonlight dancing upon wooden planks. Director Atom Egoyan states, “[The scene] has a lot to do with disorientation and positioning as we’re seeing the camera panning, we’re assuming that we’re going along a wall but [it’s] revealed that we’re actually looking at a floor.” As the camera continues panning to the right, we find a family sleeping on a mattress. A mother, a little daughter, and a father, all asleep, all comfortable in their bed, as a breeze vaguely ripples over them. Egoyan explains, “This is a very idyllic image… the emblematic image of the movie.” This bed and its occupants seem to be the very definition of safety and security. However, as the movie will continuously demonstrate, danger, sorrow, and tragedy can sprout from the safest of places.
We first encounter Mitchell Stevens as he drives through a car wash. Regarding this particular scene’s theme of confinement, Egoyan says, “It’s this feeling of entry… what I love about a car wash is that for the period of time you’re in a car wash, you feel somehow that you are assigning responsibility to this machine… a car is something that can either take us somewhere or kill us. It’s a movement towards light.” Mitchell’s phone rings, and his drug-addicted daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks), speaks to him. Egoyan says, “Even in this place where Mitchell is trying to find some sanctuary or peace, even there, his daughter, Zoe, is able to access him, so he can never get away.”
We’re subsequently introduced to teenage Nicole Burnell (Sara Polley) as she rehearses her singing some time before her performance at a county fair. Afterwards, she embraces her young father and the two walk off together. The initial ambiguity between Nicole and Sam (Tom McCamus) regarding their relationship is a pivotal plot point – is he a lover? A friend? He is indeed her father, although this initial misgiving leads into one of this town’s many dark secrets.
We soon move forward through time to encounter Mitchell two years later on an airplane, “In another womb-like atmosphere,” according to Egoyan. This time, it isn’t a car wash, but a pair of headphones that do not work. Egoyan quips, “Again, technology has failed Mitchell.” The woman sitting next to him, he is surprised to find, is Alison, a childhood friend of Zoe’s and the daughter of one of his former law partners. Alison was created especially for the film, as, according to Egoyan, “Mitchell’s story was so important, but I couldn’t find anyone in the town that he could befriend. Alison is a repository of his past, specifically of Zoe.” Like his lonely confinement in the car wash two years earlier, Zoe is still very much there with him, either through a phone call or through memory. Mitchell, Egoyan tells us, “Is so bent on revealing the truth from others, but he’s uncomfortable in his own skin. He’s uncomfortable being honest, and he’ll do anything to escape his own reality.” Egoyan goes on to call the school bus the “central horror of the film.” The bus goes on its way, picking up children “Like berries into my basket,” Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), the bus driver, fondly recalls.
This film paints the human dream of safety as an illusion, as futile. Danger comes upon us when we are young, in bed with our loved ones. Danger comes on a school bus, the very symbol of safe passage. Danger comes from those we love and respect the most, such as in the case of Nicole and her father. Children can even die before their parents. The story of The Sweet Hereafter is a message of confinement and how those places wherein we should feel the most secure can be those where we are at our most vulnerable. It stands the idea of a safe place on its head, and all that’s left to do is to pick up the pieces, to find the sweet hereafter.
In an extremely telling moment, Nicole, now a disabled accident survivor, asks her father for a lock on her door, which Sam proceeds to install, only to be chastised by Nicole for setting it too high for her to reach. “The power is in her end of the story now, and only she knows it,” Russell Banks says. As for Mitchell, “He will leave this case and not be any wiser,” Egoyan says, “because of his own despair.” Confined to vain attempts to save his own child and the children of others, Mitchell never truly “moves on.” It is Nicole who changes into something different. Despite her disability, she grows the courage and resolve to move forward with her life in a place of her choosing. “We’re all citizens of a different town, now. A place with its own special rules and its own special laws. A town of people living in the sweet hereafter.”
Egoyan sums up the theme of the movie, “There is darkness and loss, but there is light in that moment, and transcendence, and grace.” Whether confined to a bus, a bed, or in a relationship, the unexpected should be the only expectation. There is no such thing as the simple truth.