The Sweet Hereafter (1997) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

I just read Russell Banks' novel, "The Sweet Hereafter". I was curious to see if the novel was richer and more layered than the movie. It is not. I'm not criticizing the book. The movie is that good. (Mr. Banks collaborated on the production, and on the DVD commentary as well.)

I can't think of one other case in the history of movies where the director managed to cover every single major theme and incident covered in the book. As far as I can see, the only thing Atom Egoyan dropped from the screenplay was a an epilogue about a demolition derby. This could have been dramatic on screen, but the loss of the car crashes was more than compensated by the richness and appropriateness of the Pied Piper analogy which Egoyan added to the narrative. This addition probably makes it just about the only case of book-to-movie adaptation where the movie is actually more literary than the literature, and the book is more cinematic than the film.

There is only one way to sum the movie up. It is perfect. The photography is magnificent. The music is chilling. The story is richly layered. Almost every character is complex. The source material is outstanding. The script is a perfect conversion to the screen. The structure of the narrative is devilishly clever. The casting is spot-on, and includes some of the best actors on the planet, led by Ian Holm. And when it comes to subtle and elegant direction, Atom Egoyan is the man. Best of all, it's not a boring art-house film, but a straightforward character-based narrative (Although it is not sequential, it is not confusing at all. The chronology is exceptionally audience-oriented - it is just done to add some mystery and audience involvement to the viewing experience.)

What the hell more is there to say?

The only thing that worries me a bit, that causes me some hesitation in my unqualified praise, is that this movie won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes. I mean if you look at the history of the winners at Cannes, it reads like a litany of American mediocrity and foreign obscurity. I mean "All that Jazz", "Sex, Lies and Videotape", and "The Piano" have all won the Palme d'Or in the past two decades. Of course, the one thing that relieves my mind is that they didn't give "The Sweet Hereafter" the Palme d'Or, but only a special prize. They saved the Palme for the usual junk.

As for The Academy, not only did the picture not win Best Picture at the Oscars, but it wasn't even nominated. The academy decided to nominate Atom Egoyan for best director, but did not nominate the movie he directed. The flip side of the record was that they nominated "As Good as it Gets" for best picture, but did not nominate James Brooks as best director. Both of those excellent pictures are now rated higher at IMDb than some of the double nominees, including the double winner.

Here's how some of the best 1997 films stand now.

1998 Oscar Eligibles nominated film? nominated director? IMDb rating
Titanic Yes (won) Yes (won) 7.2
As Good as it Gets Yes No 7.8
L.A. Confidential Yes Yes 8.4
The Full Monty Yes Yes 7.4
The Sweet Hereafter No Yes 8.1
Good Will Hunting Yes Yes 7.9
Lawn Dogs No No 7.8
The Spanish Prisoner No No 7.6
Donnie Brasco No No 7.5
Henry Fool No No 7.5
The Game No No 7.5
Amistad No No 7.1
Contact No No 7.6
The Ice Storm No No 7.5
Mrs. Brown No No 7.5
Chasing Amy No No 7.7
In the Company of Men No No 7.4
Boogie Nights No No 7.5

I can't say I really agree with the revisionist Titanic bashing. Titanic is a top-notch movie of its type. But there's no way that The Full Monty belonged on that nominations list at all. That was a good movie, nothing earth-shattering, not Oscar worthy by any far stretch of the imagination, not in the top ten on that list above. I notice this is one of the few years without the requisite tedious British drama, so maybe Monty was the official substitute. If it had been my call, I'd have gone with Mrs Brown.

I don't know how you can pick "bests" among diverse films (South Park or American Beauty?), but my general feelings support the IMDb voters in boiling it down to L.A. Confidential or The Sweet Hereafter, although I would reverse the order. For the record, I haven't seen The Ice Storm or In The Company of Men, so I can't evaluate them.

Strangely enough, if the five nominations were recalculated based on today's ratings, Lawn Dogs would be on the list. I don't know if that is sensible, but someday I'd love to see the academy nominate a quirky, offbeat movie like Lawn Dogs (A rare case of Magic Realism that I actually like!), or Chasing Amy.

Back to the point.

The Sweet Hereafter winds three stories together. All three involve the loss of children.

The main story is about a small Canadian town which one day lost almost its entire child population in a bus crash. This plot shows real people, some of them touchingly simple, dealing with the tragedy in whatever ways they can muster.

The second story is about a lawyer who comes to that small town to do a bit of upscale ambulance-chasing, and who once heroically saved his baby when she was little, only to lose her in a different way, to heroin addiction. This subplot holds the most brilliant moment of the movie, when the lawyer gets a call from his drug-addict daughter, and she tells him she is HIV-positive. He knows that is entirely possible because of her lifestyle, but he doesn't really believe her because he thinks it's just another one of her scams to get some drug money from him. She's pulled scams like this for 15 years. She'd want money for a ticket home. He sent her the ticket, waited at the airport, but she never showed because she sold the ticket for drug money. Dozens of scams over the years. Now, if you were he, would you believe her this time when she asks for money for medication and medical care? Should he send it to her? Between Ian Holm and director Egoyan, they convey all these conflicted feelings to us without words. Astounding.

The third story is Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", the famous children's story in which the village ultimately lost its children. All three stories reflect back upon each other in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious. If you remember The Pied Piper, there were two causes of sadness. One was that the villagers had lost their children. The other was that one of the children, a lad with a crutch, was left behind when his playmates went through the mountain with the Piper. And his life was the saddest of all, because he would be doomed to a childhood without companionship, and a lifetime without a generation. Nicole is the parallel in the main story.

Ian Holm must have drawn about the hardest acting role in history. Imagine that the entire town lost its child population, and he's the lawyer hanging out like a vulture over the carcasses, trying to convince the families to sue somebody. He had to come off sensitive enough, yet tricky and conniving enough, for those families to hire him, and he had to do it all so subtly that we the audience could still identify with him. Nobody in his right mind would even have taken the role. Holm not only took it, but he made it into an acting lesson. It's possibly even better than Joe Don Baker in Mitchell.

I'll bet you thought I would make it through this one without a joke, didn't you?

Great, great movie. When people ask my favorite movie, I used to say I couldn't decide between Casablanca and A Clockwork Orange because they are so different. Now I don't have to make that choice. It is The Sweet Hereafter. I'd have to say it must be an "A".

(Note- there were a few other insubstantial differences between the movie and the novel. Nicole was not the sole survivor in the book, and there were other lawyers camping out in the town, but the stories of the other survivors and the other lawyers were never developed, so the elimination of these characters was actually an improvement - a bit of economy that sharpened the focus and also allowed the Pied Piper analogy to hold true.)

The nudity, full-frontal at that, came from Alberta Watson, who plays Madeline on "La Femme Nikita". I suppose she must be in her mid-40s', but she still looks great with her clothes off.

Box Office: it took in $4 million at the U.S. box, a few BeaverBucks in Canada, and barely re-paid the investors. What a shame that more people have not seen it.

General consensus: Four from Ebert. About 11 from Berardinelli (he likes it as much as I do, and picked it as his top movie of the year.)

IMDB summary: 7.9 out of 10. Top 250 of all time.

DVD info from Amazon. Includes full-length commentary by Russell Banks (author of the novel) and Egoyan, a videotaped discussion with the same two guys, an illustrated version of Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin", an Egoyan talk show appearance. The DVD is 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic, letterboxed. The DVD transfer is superb. Colors beautiful, images sharp. I told you, the damn thing is perfect.

Book info from Amazon. It's a "quality paperback"

TUNA's comments in yellow:

The Sweet Hereafter remains one of my favorite films.

Director Atom Egoyan adapted Russell Banks' novel, The Sweet Hereafter, for the screen. He believes that directing begins with writing the screenplay, and he only directs films that he writes. The most unusual thing about his work is the chronology. While he doesn't object to a linear time sequence in films, he prefers to think of a film as an on-screen dream, where people slip effortlessly from past to future to present. Partially because of this, and because he avoids narrative voice-over (he sees that as the easy way out to convey the plot). you have to think to interpret his cinematic dreams. This has caused some to criticize him for being "too cerebral." Based on this film, and Exotica, he is one of my favorite directors.

A common theme in Egoyan's recent films is dealing with loss of a loved one. He says he is fascinated by the grieving process, and is hoping to understand it by making films about it. He also believes that the image is everything, and sees dialogue as much less important, so creates visually moving films, and employs actors who have the ability to covey information with body language and facial expressions. Anyone can shout "I hate you," but it takes talent to do this without speaking. Since he delivers his message in these ways, he provides time to think with a slower pace than those who employ linear time line, a standard curve of excitement, and plenty of dialogue. Egoyan added an element not in the book. To the twin stories of the lawyer and his daughter, and the town and its loss, he added a recitation of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. This was a perfect allegory of what happened in both of the other stories. Author Banks remarked that, if he had thought of it, he would have put it in the novel.

The Sweet Hereafter was critically acclaimed, was nominated for numerous awards, and won many of them. It is the story of an attorney who goes to a small town that has suffered a nearly unimaginable tragedy hoping to recruit enough residents to win a huge award in a class action suit. The school bus for this rural town crashed, and nearly all of the town's children were killed. Only two survived -- the bus driver, and a teenager who had babysat for most of the kids who were killed. As the attorney attempts to get the grieving parents to retain him, we learn of many skeletons in the closets of the town people. The attorney is also dealing with a similar loss in his own life -- his daughter is a drug addict and essentially lost to him. He believes he can find a guilty person or entity to punish for the bus crash, much as he would like to find out why he lost his own daughter. Sure, he is an "ambulance chaser," but he is a dedicated one who honestly thinks he can help the parents channel their anger and grief.

Any more would be a spoiler, and I hope you will see this film. The nudity is provided by the talented Alberta Watson, who is probably best known as Madeline in the TV series La Femme Nikita. She is seen in a sex scene, first undressing, and then dressing at the end, and leaves no part of her body unseen. While this film could be called a little cerebral, and may be too depressing for some, it has very wide appeal for what is really an art house film. The proper score is B+.

Scoop's notes:

I guess that I have seen almost all of Atom Egoyan's films and, while I admire them universally, I don't much care for any except Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. The Adjuster and Felicia's Journey, for example, are both exceptional works, but the audience is encouraged to keep an ironic distance from the characters, a feeling that they are not we. Egoyan's quintessential milieu has been somewhere between satire and surrealism. He was making quirky, arty, post-modernist movies before these two masterpieces, and he has since returned to his familiar landscape, with the offbeat tragi-comedy, Felicia's Journey. Personally, I find him most effective when he drops the jaundiced eye, and tries to pull the audience into the emotional core of the story. I think he'd be better off leaving the irony to Jerry Seinfeld.

Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter contain none of his surrealistic settings or broadly drawn Dickensian characters. They are about recognizable people dealing with immeasurable loss. Like his other films, they are constructed brilliantly. Unlike his other films, they encourage genuine empathy between the audience and the characters, with no irony standing between them. Most filmmakers avoid deep emotions because the tone is difficult to manage. Too much gravitas results in laughable melodrama. Too much dialogue makes the film precious or sappy. Too much offhandedness, although it can be very effective, can also show a lack of depth. Egoyan showed in his two masterpieces that he can handle intense emotions without falling into any of these traps. They are two of the finest, most emotionally gripping films of the 20th century.

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