The Sweet Hereafter
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Atom Egoyan was - like so many passionate, young directors – a promising filmmaker. That promise, which percolated just beneath the surface through a series of intriguing, flawed movies, was finally realized with the release of 1994's Exotica (which just missed the bottom end of this list). Egoyan then proceeded to top himself with 1997's The Sweet Hereafter, a completely non-manipulative meditation on grief and fate. The subject matter of the film is difficult (children dying in a bus accident), and, under the stewardship of another director, it might have made for a 5-tissue sob-fest. Egoyan, however, strikes the ideal balance between detachment and melodrama. The screenplay is nearly perfect, and the director never makes a wrong choice. This isn't just good filmmaking. It is powerful, compelling, unforgettable filmmaking. Regardless of how The Sweet Hereafter impacts you – whether you cry a river, feel like you have been punched in the stomach, or watch in wonder at the accomplishment – you will never forget this motion picture.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The central event of The Sweet Hereafter is a school bus accident that results in the death of fourteen children and the injury of many others. On a cold winter's day in the small town of Sam Dent, British Columbia, the driver loses control of the vehicle and it careens off the road onto a frozen lake which gives way beneath the weight. Enter Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), an ambulance-chaser who has come to Sam Dent to persuade the victims' parents to join in a class action lawsuit. He promises financial compensation for their losses, claiming that while no one can offer an outlet for their grief, he can be the voice of their anger. In fact, Mitchell knows something about those emotions. His daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks), is a drug addict on the road to self-destruction. All of the fury bubbling within Mitchell becomes focused into his work in Sam Dent. But there is no clear culprit to sue for the bus accident, and Mitchell is groping for a villain who doesn't exist. Parents join him in the vain hope that money will soothe the pain or bring some sort of "closure," but the greed for compensation fractures the community.
The Sweet Hereafter is film maker Atom Egoyan's most compelling movie to date. During the course of this 110-minute, emotionally-turbulent experience, Egoyan doesn't ask any easy questions or propose any pat answers. This is film making at its most powerful: drama capable of shaking the soul, yet free of even the slightest hint of manipulation, sentimentality, or mawkishness. Egoyan has given us a powerful motion picture that resonates on every level. The most amazing thing about The Sweet Hereafter is not the style, the acting, or the cinematography (all of which are exceptional), but the way the film successfully juggles so many themes, persuading us to reflect upon them all before the 110 minute running time is up. This is truly a great film - easily 1997's best.
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