Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Sweet Hereafter

Now that I'm home again, I once more have access to the printed New York Times (if only on Sundays). First, I always tackle the arts section, because it feels so good to hold in my hands the kind of information I usually have to scour the interwebs for. The New York Times Arts is a great resource for film news of all kinds. I especially like how they don't discriminate between big Hollywood blockbusters and the oft overlooked works of smaller production companies, or the work of Egyptian-Armenians who were raised in Canada, as the case may be.

I wasn't familiar with Atom Egoyan, but after reading the write-up of his forthcoming Chloe, I thought I'd take a look at some of his earlier work in order to prepare myself. After reading Katrina Onstad's article noting Egoyan's penchant for exploring "Sexual taboos," "miscommunication," and "complicated puzzles... in which characters misread one another and the world, cornered by sexual desire and technology," I was intrigued. Hm, I thought. This sounds like all that I love, and more! The more I write on here, the more it might become apparent that I am drawn to remorselessly depressing and disturbing films. (If you have any suggestions, send them my way.)

I just watched The Sweet Hereafter and I was suitably impressed. This is the kind of film to which one might prescribe the term "elegiac," particularly in response to the heavy subject matter. Egoyan is not kidding anyone with the plot; there is no suspense. The film is about the aftermath of a terrible accident. Therefore, the aftermath is exactly what the narrative begins with. The opening is quite haunting, and we are confronted with a beautiful image that will not be truly explained until later, although it reveals immediately what the film is concerned with. The film opens with a long pan across dark wooden floorboards, ending with an overhead view of a family in bed--a mother and father with a young child cradled between them. This is the most unifying image of family life that is portrayed in the film, and it occurs in the first few moments. Directly following this, Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) becomes trapped in a carwash, a moment that suggests a parallel to the fate of the many children involved in the bus accident.

The film's narrative is fragmented, weaving in and out of the present. Throughout, Stevens attempts to extract the particulars of the accident from the townspeople in order to construct a litigation case. He is, as it turns out, a lawyer. He is also a father who has lost a child, although in a different manner. He is encumbered by a drug-addicted daughter, who calls him from payphones to beg him for money. The film explores the tracts of grief--the need to assign blame where there is none, the refusal to accept an unordered universe that claims young lives without reason.

Visually, the film is stark--set in mid-winder with bleak twilight snowscapes. The town seems like the edge of the world. Capturing his characters as distant silhouettes against this snowy backdrop, Egoyan invokes a kind of desolate loneliness that even the desperate dialogue of the grieving parents cannot render. As the bus goes over the highway barrier, the camera keeps its distance. From a distance, we watch as the bus slides onto a thin layer of ice, slowly sinking in.

To me, the pinnacle of this film is Sarah Polley's performance as Nicole Burnell, the angelic teenager who is the sole survivor of the crash. Opposing her performance is Ian Holm as the wily and world-weary lawyer. Add a haunting soundtrack, mostly sung by Polley herself, and you have a powerful, lingering vignette of the most innate human characteristics. I can't wait for Chloe.

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