Celebrating 25 years of an embarrassing Atom Egoyan film

“I sometimes go to extravagant lengths to bring up The Sweet Hereafter at dinner parties because it is my all-time least-favourite Canadian film, and one seemingly adored by everyone else.”

Contains spoilers and reference to sexual abuse.

I sometimes go to extravagant lengths to bring up Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) at dinner parties because it is my all-time least-favourite Canadian film, and one seemingly adored by everyone else. So, when I found the Globe & Mail’s celebratory interview with Egoyan, Sarah Polley and Russel Banks (who wrote the book from which The Sweet Hereafter was adapted) lying on a table at my local coffee shop, I just about danced up and down in a kind of giddy rage, because I realized that it’s been 25 years since the film’s release, and there’s nothing quite like an anniversary to dredge up bad feelings.

The event at the core of The Sweet Hereafter is a school bus crash in a small B.C. town that leaves 14 children dead and their surviving friends and families in a state of devastation. In the aftermath, lawyer Mitchell Stephens, played by Ian Holm, obsessed with the idea that no accident is without blame, pursues the parents of the victims in his efforts to launch a class-action lawsuit, motivated apparently by his confused feelings of guilt around his “drug-addict” daughter, Zoe.

The crash scene, presented late in the film, is remarkably understated. The driver, Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose) loses control on a patch of ice, and the bus slides out over a lake, sinking with terrifying speed. We see this only as a longshot, the screams of the children audible, but the awful chaos within the bus is left entirely to the imagination. 

Sarah Polley (centre) in The Sweet Hereafter

Yet, make no mistake that this reserved moment stands alone, undercut on either side by a numbing procession of weepy performances set largely to a bizarre “pseudo-medieval” score by Mychael Danna. Egoyan then clumsily overlays the story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin onto the narrative, as if he were a small child clutching a hard copy of the book, smashing it against the face of a sleepy parent trying feebly to protect their eyes from the book’s corners. 

The parallels between The Sweet Hereafter and the Pied Piper are frustratingly elusive, but Egoyan has Polley, playing the good-natured teen Nicole, read the entire story on an evening babysitting, chopping up the scene and dolling it out throughout the film, even going so far as to add his own stanza for effect. Egoyan has said he added the Pied Piper because he “considered the story [of The Sweet Hereafter] a ‘grim fairy tale’,” but why this fairy tale? I defy you to find a parallel other than the town losing its children. Still, the forced superimposition of this particular story has us desperately grasping for connections that never materialize. The camera hovers meaningfully over a drawing of a child using a cane who survives the Piper’s tune because he can’t dance away fast enough, implying some similarity between this child and Nicole, who uses a wheelchair after the crash. Yet the motivating incident, the whole moral of the Pied Piper, is that the parents were wrongdoers and are punished for their greed, the very opposite of the random act of fate that grips this town and that leaves Nicole injured (the child, meanwhile, starts the story with a cane). Even if this is intended as some ironic commentary about the absence of direct culpability in real life, of the dark vicissitudes of fate, it still feels forced. 

This affected tone plagues the entirety of The Sweet Hereafter, from the especially stiff and blubbering depiction of Zoe’s substance use by Caerthan Banks, the real-life daughter of Russel, to every adult who bursts into teary-eyed recollections about the lost children. The subtler performances, like that of Polley, can’t bear the weight of the sodden mess of the rest of the film, especially with that ever-present ney flute cooing away over the snowy mountains.

The decision, meanwhile, to make Mitchell Stephens the central character (the source material shares the narration between four main characters) feels peculiar. Bringing Stephens’ voice to the fore has an opportunity cost: that of rendering the other characters thinner, their emotions trite. The moral to The Sweet Hereafter, if it is, as Egoyan suggests, a fairy tale, seems to be that those who seek out financial compensation for pains too vast for any sum will never heal in other, more meaningful ways. The character of Stephens is critical to getting this across, with his mixture of fixation, condescension, and misguided good intentions, but Holm never quite hits the mark. In more interesting moments he appears downright manic, hunched furtively in the bus after dark, uselessly looking for clues in the broken glass, but despite his extensive screen time his agitation lacks substance, leaving us with the bumbling parody of a man possessed.

The Sweet Hereafter Atom Egoyan Tom McCamus Sarah Polley
Tom McCamus and Sarah Polley

What is perhaps most ridiculous about The Sweet Hereafter, however, is not so much that it features an incestuous side plot between Polley’s Nicole and her father Sam (Tom McCamus) but that this romance is treated with a cringy tenderness bordering on the surreal. Do father and daughter share a kiss in a candle-lit hayloft? Oh, yes. Does the same father lose interest in his daughter after the tragedy strikes their town and leaves her wheelchair-bound? Also yes. What on earth are we supposed to glean from this? That he is both an abuser and has ableist views on sex? Weirder still is that Nicole’s despondency about her injuries is also ambiguously played as sadness over the loss of her romantic relationship with her father. (When he asks her why she’s distant, she answers, “We didn’t use to have to talk a lot, did we, Daddy?”) On its premiere, did the entire audience at this moment curl into balls and give one terrible collective groan?! Her trauma is treated in frankly baffling ways. It is as though Canada produced a dark family traumedy à la Tomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) except the jokes can’t land because Egoyan’s cinematic world is twee rather than outré. Kudos for casting a handsome and doe-eyed man with nice hair as a pedophile, but this is one of the few interesting choices to grace the film.

Like Holm’s lawyer, finger-pointing in the face of disaster, it is tempting to blame someone for this film. For those who will blame Banks, the book’s author, I’ll tend to blame Egoyan, because any film adaptation is a rewriting and reconfiguring of the source material by the new author: the director. Regardless, and mysteriously, this film remains beloved, with a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and included in the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2015 list of the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time. It even won the Grand Prix at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. 

Atom Egoyan and Ian Holm on the set of The Sweet Hereafter

Rewatching The Sweet Hereafter, however, I did begin to wonder, is this film more refreshingly amoral than I’ve given it credit for? Sam, the predatory father, acoustic guitar in hand, gets off scot-free. His daughter Nicole manages to disrupt his chances of a big legal settlement in her name, but she remains trapped in his care, and in his image of her, equal parts infantilizing and sexualized, his “beautiful rock star.” The lawyer digs around for fault where there is none and, in his self-involvement, completely ignores the child abuse that is taking place. Perhaps with a different director at the helm, and a different emphasis, this could have been a pertinent contemporary fable. The source material had potential — this needn’t have been a cloying small-town melodrama — but Egoyan’s rare moments of directorial lucidity can’t make up for this truly mediocre whole.

Don’t just take it from me: I invite you to watch or rewatch The Sweet Hereafter. It’s the first step in joining the ranks of dinner party killjoys raving loudly about the Canadian films we should no longer revere. Then again, maybe just save yourself the trouble and watch Affliction (1997). Small down intergenerational trauma is also adapted from a Banks novel, also snowy, only directed by Paul Schrader, America’s far subtler answer to Egoyan. ■

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