Lest the brevity of this post indicate otherwise, The Sweet Hereafter is one of my favorite films. Although I’ve read the original novel by Russell Banks and seen Atom Egoyan’s film several times, I feel ill-equipped to “review” it. It is quietly heartbreaking and devastating, and difficult to capture in words.
Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin tale runs through the film as a metaphor. A tragedy of the worst kind imaginable, the death of an entire generation of a small Canadian town’s children, reveals that everybody, everybody, has demons. Lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) descends upon the town, claiming to be able to help the surviving families avenge their children’s deaths. His zeal convinces many of families to join a lawsuit, but his true attraction to this particular case is complex and personal, and it becomes clear he is possibly an even more tortured soul than any of his clients. His crusade only further pulls back the veil on the town’s deepest secrets, and it falls to the young survivor Nicole (Sarah Polley) to put an end to it all.
One excellent scene that demonstrates the high level of filmmaking at work: when we finally see a flashback of the accident in question, parent Billy (Bruce Greenwood) watches in shock as an overturned school bus carrying his two children skids slowly to a stop atop a frozen lake, pauses for a heartbeat, then begins to crack through. The whole thing is filmed from a locked-down vantage point, at a distance, with muted sound design. Every element of the sequence shows astonishing restraint on the part of the filmmakers.