'Sweet Hereafter' defines excellence

by Ben Mandelker | 5/1/98 5:00am

It is no coincidence that "The Sweet Hereafter" is on over 250 critics lists for the top 10 movies of 1997. Very few films are able to achieve the level of greatness that it reaches. "The Sweet Hereafter" -- showing Sunday night in Spaulding Auditorium -- is an extraordinary film that should be seen by anyone who wants quality fare.

Based on the complex book by Russell Banks, the tragic premise of the film is enough to give even the most stoic of viewers a knot in their chests. A small town in British Columbia must deal with the sudden death of many children in a bus accident. After hearing about the horrific loss, a lawyer named Mitchell Stephens (played excellently by Ian Holm) comes to town and tries to rally support for a lawsuit against the bus company. Along the way, Stephens exposes some dark secrets in the community and manages to reveal a few of his inner demons as well.

Pivotal to Stephens' case is a girl played by Nicole Burnell. She is one of the few survivors and can ultimately say whether or not the accident was due to human error or mechanical error. As the film continues, her deposition becomes key in the survival of the town as a peaceful community.

The story is extremely complex with several characters moving in and out, all of whom are well developed and utterly memorable. There are the eccentric parents of Bear, an adopted boy who dies in the accident. There is the guilt-laden bus driver, Dolores, who has to live with the knowledge that 14 children died under her care. There is Billy Ansel (Bruce Greenwood), the father so enamored with his children that he would drive behind the bus everyday while his two daughters would wave at him from the rear window. Perhaps one of the most tragic elements of the film is Ansel, who witnesses his two daughters die in the bus.

While the film begins after the accident, the bus's demise is not seen until midway through. The image of the bus as it skids off the road and onto thin ice is just as powerful and gut-wrenching as watching the Titanic slip into the ocean.

Director Atom Egoyan ("Exotica") -- who was nominated for an Oscar for his work -- proves that he is one of the best filmmakers around with this work. Not only does he capture all the emotions and layers of this complex story, but he creates a unique and difficult structure that not only is intriguing, but extremely effective. The film takes place at many different times, ranging from years before the accident to years after.

There is no linear sequence to the scenes. Instead the present and the past intermingle seamlessly, reminding the audience that what has happened in these characters' lives is still very much a part of their current existences.

Holm does a magnificent job tackling his character. He is both calm and full of rage. Stephens is a man who has lost his child as well. However, she has not died. She has become a needy drug addict who may or may not be HIV positive. In a sense, she is the prime motivation for Stephens. He knows what it is like not to have a child anymore, and he is angry. To him, someone has to be at fault, and it is his job to find out who or what.

One of the questions that lurks throughout the film is how virtuous are Stephens' motivations. He is the protagonist, but is what he is fighting for a noble cause? Is it better to find someone to blame or simply to let people mourn? And does Stephens truly care for the families of the victims, or is the case simply a way to redeem himself for being a bad parent to his daughter and ultimately causing her to go off to a life of drugs?

There are no simple explanations in this film. Perhaps in that way "The Sweet Hereafter" reaches a level superior to most other releases. The characters are not simple archetypes of good and bad. They are rich and multi-faceted roles, and they exist in a hard-hitting and complex narrative. This is filmmaking at its very best.