- Listed in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
- 1997 film deals with small town trying to get back on its feet after
deaths of children in accident
- Similar theme in Newtown, the US, after the Dec 14 massacre of 20
kids and 6 teachers
A QUESTION that is dominating the media in the wake of the Sandy Hook
Elementary School massacre on Dec 14 is whether the people of the small
Connecticut town of Newtown can ever get a back to their normal lives.
Adam Lanza, 20, shot and killed his mother in their house before he went
to the school and killed 20 students and six teachers, before killing
Residents of the town of 27,000 will now wonder whether life can ever get
back to normal after the devastation.
This theme is studied in Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film
The Sweet Hereafter, which is based on the novel of the same name by
n the film, many pupils of a small town are killed in a school bus accident.
The film studies how the event had a profound impact on the lives of residents
and those who survived the crash.
In the wake of the crash comes a lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm, now
appearing in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as old Bilbo), urging
residents to file a class-action suit against the authorities to get
compensation for the death of their children.
Stevens is not interested in life returning to normal for this small town.
He’s interested in channelling residents’ anger towards the suit.
When a man whose two children died in the crash threatens to strike him, he
sneers at him and asks him whether he’s angry.
Stevens is more interested in digging up dirt on the townsfolk than
letting life go on.
He knows a thing or two about losing a child as he
doesn’t see eye to eye with his missing drug addict daughter, Zoe (Caerthan
Banks), who calls him at irregular times for money, is HIV positive and hates
When we first meet Stevens, he’s in an automated car wash. Zoe calls him as
he sits in the car and the water pummels it. He’s already finding it hard to
get a clear line, suggesting that the line of communication between them is
beyond comprehension and washed away.
He handles her with patience and love but he’s also weary of the constant
fights with her.
He tells a victim’s father, mechanic Billy Ansel (Bruce
Greenwood): “That’s my daughter. Or it may be the police to tell me they’ve
found her dead. She’s a drug addict.”
Billy: “Why are you telling me this?”
Stevens: “Why am I telling you this, Mr Ansel? Because
we’ve all lost our children. They’re dead to us.”
Stevens is a bit of a contradiction because he instigates the townsfolk to
take action over their dead children while he can’t get close to his “dead”
He realises that having a child means having a lifetime of pleasure and
The film’s exteriors are beautifully filmed in long shots to show the
snow-covered landscape and mountains. The region’s cold is making everyone go
The interior shots are close-ups of the actors, simply filmed to reveal every
twitch of emotion and to allow viewers to focus on their words.
The film’s timeline moves back and forth across three stages: the time before
the accident, the aftermath and Stevens on a plane two years after the
Stevens first meets a motel owner and his wife, the Walkers (Alberta Watson
and Maury Chaykin), who lost a son in the accident. They’re in a dead
relationship and prefer to abuse each other.
The wife is having an affair with Billy, whose babysitter, the wide-eyed
Nicole (Sarah Polley), is having an incestuous relationship with her adoring
The father will later tell Billy that they’ve moved on with their lives, but
it doesn’t look like the latter will listen to him.
Another couple is the hippy Ottos (Earl Pastko and Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan’s
wife), who lost their Native American son in the crash. The wife resists
Stevens’ persuasion, but she eventually succumbs to his influence.
The driver of the bus, Dolores (Gabrielle Rose), is hurting over that fateful
day. She loves her kids, and she’s going to be stuck with the memory of that day
for the rest of her life.
Egoyan makes no judgment on these people, allowing the camera to move fluidly
between characters and time lines. He shows us how these people were before and
after and accident, and how their lives will be forever changed.
The acting is excellent, especially that by Holm and Polley, and even when
the film delves into an unsual subject such as grief, you'll feel honoured that
you got to view this slow, elegiac and beautiful film meditating on the
devastation brought about by so many deaths.
Nicole relates the tale of the Pied Piper to two kids and the tale is played
as a voice-over while’s she’s having sex with her father.
In the accident and fairy tale, children have been led to their deaths.
The pied piper led the kids to their death because their parents didn’t want
to pay him for his services (“he wanted them to be punished”).
In the accident, while there is no Pied Piper, it can be argued that an
unseen force is leading the children to their deaths.
Nicole ends the
film with this: “We’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its
own special rules and its own special laws. A town of people living in the sweet
4½ out of 5
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