On October 12th, tumescent radio host and purveyor of insane conspiracy theories Alex Jones was ordered to pay $965 million in damages to the families of Sandy Hook victims. It was an easy repository for Schadenfreude. After years of polluting the airwaves with baseless claims about “crisis actors” that made a mockery of parents’ grief, Jones’s comeuppance felt like a long time coming. It’s also, at least in America these days, exceedingly rare; the N.R.A., for instance, has spent decades ensuring that gun manufacturers are shielded from liability after mass shootings. Even when such class action lawsuits make it to the courtroom, there’s no guarantee of success. The patient cumulative work done by lawyers behind the scenes isn’t necessarily the stuff that great cinematic drama is built on, which makes Atom Egoyan’s prismatic 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter all the more remarkable.
Released in U.S. theaters twenty-five years ago this week, The Sweet Hereafter won the Grand Prix at Cannes and received two Oscar nominations, including one for Best Director. It’s not talked about in the same breath as such flashier masterpieces of the nineties as Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas, but maybe it should be. Adapted from a Russell Banks novel, it’s the story of an unthinkable tragedy: one snowy morning in a rural Canadian town, a school bus skids and crashes through a guardrail on the highway, killing fourteen of the children on board. The film unfolds in the same scrambled jigsaw puzzle structure as Egoyan’s earlier Exotica, but the purpose here isn’t to complicate a mystery. Instead it’s a way of immersing viewers in how loss can fracture a collective memory. We are shattered along with the characters.
Egoyan sets this up immediately in the film’s opening scenes. The first person we meet is Mitchell Stephens (a career-best Ian Holm), who is seen taking a call from his estranged drug addict daughter Zoe and getting stuck in a car wash. We will soon learn he is a lawyer in the ambulance-chasing mold, who has come to town to “direct your rage,” as he puts it to the parents willing to sit down with him. He does not believe in accidents. Someone is always to blame. These scenes are juxtaposed with earlier, more idyllic times where we’re introduced to such townspeople as the teenaged Nicole (Sarah Polley), who will soon be in a wheelchair, and Billy (Bruce Greenwood), the father of twins who has already lost a wife to cancer and is driving behind the bus when it crashes. Winter then fall, winter then fall. The tragedy is in the future; the tragedy has already occurred. We spin about in this purgatory like the ferris wheel that becomes one of the film’s most potent visual motifs.
Not content to simply vacillate between the ominous past and the unendurable present, Egoyan introduces a third timeline into the mix, this one set two years into the future. We see Mitchell again, now traveling on an overnight flight and seated by chance next to a young woman who used to know his daughter. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this sort of uncanny coincidence could seem manipulative. The immediately preceding shot – an exquisitely framed example of how Egoyan makes use of interior space – manages to pack a couple fighting in the background with Mitchell taking another strained call from Zoe in the foreground, priming us to think this later interaction is somehow related to the lawsuit. But it turns out to be much more elliptical than that, and Egoyan takes his time putting all of the pieces in place.
He also waits an agonizing fifty-six minutes into the film to depict the accident. We share the same distanced perspective as the widowed father Billy, watching helplessly as the bus careens down a hill and onto an ice-covered lake. Seconds later the surface cracks and the back end begins sinking into the water, the screams of the children far enough away to sound almost joyful if you close your eyes, like they’re still on a carnival ride. By then, we’ve learned much more about what the townspeople are hiding beneath their own chilly facades: affairs, alcoholism, and, in Nicole’s case, incestuous sexual abuse. Her earlier recitation of Robert Browning’s Pied Piper poem begins to take on disturbing undertones. Who has taken the children away? And why? Is it a punishment, as Nicole tells the doomed child Mason? And if so, is it in some sense deserved?
The Sweet Hereafter offers no satisfying answers to these questions. There aren’t any. To his credit, Mitchell doesn’t pretend he has any either. In the film’s centerpiece scene, he recounts to his fellow plane passenger Ally the story that has come to define his own idea of the requirements of parenthood, which have become inseparable for him from the requirements of justice. As a baby, Zoe was unknowingly bitten by a black widow spider, causing her throat to swell up. While he and his wife made the forty-minute drive to the nearest hospital, Mitchell held Zoe in his lap to keep her calm. He also held a knife in case he had to perform an emergency tracheotomy. “I did not have to go as far as I was prepared to go,” he says, “but I was prepared to go all the way.”
Twenty-five years on, it’s this moment that feels the most resonant to our modern era. America is at a time and place now where parents are too often asked to shoulder impossible burdens, their bereavement becoming instant fodder to feed the twenty-four-hour news cycle. And as Mitchell knows too well, you don’t have to lose a child to be in mourning for her. Compensation, whether in the form of a settlement or an apology, can never be a replacement; it’s also understandable to seek it. But as Harvard Divinity professor Matthew Ichihashi Potts once wrote, all forgiveness “begins and ends in failure.” Perhaps the “sweet hereafter” is what lives between the two.
“The Sweet Hereafter” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.