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The Sweet Hereafter

by Robert L. Waring (May 1998)

The film The Sweet Hereafter is very much a collaboration between the author of the book by the same name, Russell Banks, and the film’s writer and director, Atom Egoyan. This congenial marriage of the skills of author and screenwriter is evidenced in their discussion on the alternate audio track of the laserdisc and in their 1997 interview on the PBS radio program Fresh Air. [To listen, you will need a copy of the free Real Audio Player.]

As in many attempts at faithful translation from page to screen, The Sweet Hereafter crams too much information into the film’s 112 minutes, often leaving the viewer confused or unaware of the subtleties flashing by. To fully appreciate the film, a viewer should either read the book first or see the film more than once. That being said, this emotional and haunting film is well worth a single viewing, and many of its images linger in the mind long after the credits roll.

The film explores the effects of a fatal school bus crash on a small rural community, and portrays the unsuccessful efforts of a lawyer to win a large settlement for some of the now childless families. (The story in the novel was set in a small town in the Adirondacks, while the filmmakers chose western Canada as their locale.) The film flows (and sometimes leaps) back and forth between at least five different time frames. It shows the lawyer, played by Ian Holm, two decades earlier when he still had the affections of his former wife and of his baby daughter, now an adult drug addict. Life in the community before the bus accident is depicted along with disturbing imagery of the school bus’ journey on the day of the accident. The lawyer’s efforts at recruiting clients after the crash occupy significant screen time, and are interspersed with his conversation two years later with a family friend. There is much more time travel here than in a typical film about time travel, such as the film Slaughterhouse Five, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel.

In the Fresh Air radio interview, Banks explains that he wrote the book after interviewing residents of a small town in South Texas who lost their children in a school bus crash. Banks realized that two events tore the town apart: the crash, and the litigation which followed. He set out to write a novel illustrating the dangers of Americans' seeming obsession with explaining inexplicable tragedies, drawing at times on his personal experience with the loss of his brother in a train accident three decades before. For Armenian screenwriter and director Egoyan, the reference point was his own coming to terms with the genocide of Armenians a hundred years ago.

The film negatively portrays the lawyer as an obstacle to the families' attempts to heal their grief—little more than a sophisticated ambulance chaser. Holm masterfully shows how this personal injury attorney uses better sales skills than those possessed by most car salesmen to individually draw in each client. In one scene, he literally crawls on his hands and knees to show empathy with a potential clients’ feelings of helplessness. The book reportedly explains his pursuit of the elusive bus crash case as a catharsis for his rage against the unseen enemies that pulled his daughter into drug addiction. However, the film, by failing to reveal any legal cause of action, seems to presume that a fat fee is his primary goal.

Upon seeing the horrifying image of the bus breaking through lake ice, my lawyer mind thought, "Gee, if there had been an emergency exit on the roof of that bus, all those kids might have gotten out alive." The film’s lawyer never gets that far. More than once, he admits that he has no idea what sort of negligence will be the basis for his suit. In one of the most heavily criticized traditions of modern day advocacy, he says, "Someone died, so someone else has to pay."

If the film has a hero (or shero), it is Nicole, a crippled survivor of the crash played by Sarah Polley. Her disability ends an incestuous relationship with her father and gives her the courage to single-handedly terminate the lawyer’s greedy search for a villain. She is also the narrator of one of Director Egoyan’s brilliant additions to film: the poem which tells the story of the Pied Piper, who lures all of the children away from a town, except one who, like Nicole, is lame. (As Egoyan admits on the laserdisc narration, he added some of his own verses to the original poem.) In one of the film’s most profound moments, a child, soon to die in the accident, asks Nicole why is was—if the Piper was so persuasive that he lead all the children away from the town—that he could not convince the townspeople simply to pay him for his rat removal services. "He must have wanted to punish them," she responds. That answer speaks volumes about our adversary system of tort litigation.

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