The Sweet Hereafter [Blu-Ray]

Atom Egoyan

BY Robert BellPublished Jul 12, 2012

On the new "Sweet Hereafter Revisited" commentary track included with this Blu-Ray release, director Atom Egoyan discusses the status of Canadian film at the time of its release, noting that this Academy Award-nominated, critically acclaimed treatise on grief and exploitation was really a culmination of the collective movement within the community. Without context, this could easily sound like a pseudo-pretentious attempt at feigned humbleness, but in reality, the late '90s/early '00s was a significant time for English-Canadian cinema, with directors like Egoyan, Bruce Sweeney, Thom Fitzgerald, John Greyson, Gary Burns, Francois Girard, Lynne Stopkewich and even Don McKellar making films that turned heads by challenging the global status quo. Even titles like Ginger Snaps and New Waterford Girl were finding minor commercial success, showing that the land without identity could create more than just insular National Film Board art films. Of course, Egoyan had been building upon each release, garnering more recognition and broadening his audience for several years leading up to The Sweet Hereafter, already having the low-key, deceptively complex smut film, Exotica, finding mass popularity on cable movie channels. He'd been experimenting with the narrative form, often jumping back and forth in time in his films, showing people reacting to life-changing moments before acknowledging what said moments actually were. The Sweet Hereafter is the perfect blend of his specific time-shifting, emotionally-driven style with thematic and narrative accessibility. Based on the Russell Banks novel, he shifts the story between the events leading up to a school bus tragedy in a small town and the post-accident efforts of a cynical lawyer to earn money from the situation under the guise of getting compensation for the families of the many child victims. It even jumps years beyond that to a conversation between lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) and a childhood friend of his drug addict daughter, giving some heartbreaking context to his tactless, manipulative mission to exploit the grieving for personal gain. On the commentary track included with the original DVD release, Egoyan dissects every scene and theme, commenting on the nature of Nicole's (Sarah Polley) ― an incest victim later paralyzed by the bus accident ― anger and the Pied Piper allegory of the story, wherein Mitchell plays a devil of sorts, preying on the weaknesses and emotional fragility of the many families he approaches to support his law suit. It's clear that the reason this work remains as Egoyan's crowning achievement, especially considering the faux art trash he's been putting out lately, is his intense attention to every detail and obsession with maintaining thematic consistency and a sombre emotional tone. Other supplements, such as a Charlie Rose interview and a discussion between Egoyan and author Russell Banks, reinforce the care and thoughtfulness that went into making this deeply observant and touching superlative work. It's true that the Pied Piper metaphor is a little too obvious and sequences involving Stevens' drug addict daughter are quite clumsy, but the sincerity of these missteps is somewhat endearing. It's just unfortunate that intellectually- and emotionally-charged Canadian movies like this are only made in Quebec nowadays.

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