The Sweet Hereafter

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Where to begin describing this film by Atom Egoyan, which is quite clearly a work of genius, based on a novel by Russell Banks, who has brought to his remarkable fictions a greater sense of the eloquence of hardscrabble lives than any other living American author? The achievement here is prodigious and consistently excellent: acting, writing, editing, directing, photography, musical score. All wonderful. So, where to begin?

It's possible just to begin in the middle of things, where Egoyan opens his screenplay, with the arrival in a rural, Canadian hamlet of Mitchell Stephens, a big-city lawyer (Ian Holm) who has come to "give your anger a voice," as he explains to parents whose children have been killed in a freak school bus accident. Of course, Stephens is hoping for a lot more than that, as he insinuates himself into the lives of these grieving people. He'll search out the "deep pockets," he promises, as he begins turning the little community inside out, against itself.

This is not just a film about lawyers and opportunism, however. It's not even primarily that. It's a film about responsibility, of the most profound kind, and how we are, all of us -- almost -- ready to abandon the everyday decencies in pursuit of greed: greed for money, for love, for control, for some misguided idea of recompense. But we'll be held responsible (in the moral fable of both novel and film) for letting greed spoil the communities of feeling that are our only protection against entropy and chaos.

Everything here is right, and worthy of praise. But it is Egoyan's handling of time that is perhaps the film's most remarkable achievement. Through recursive cutting, he evolves a cinematic present so saturated with the sense of lost time (a bygone past, a future that cannot be) that once the bus accident finally takes place on camera (more than halfway through), it's an event of heartbreakingly tragic weight. Particularly -- and this comes straight from Banks --because of time lost between parents and children.

That said, there is a "sweet hereafter," but no epiphanic, happy ending; resolution here is earthbound, freighted with pain, but all the more real for that, all the more sweet in its unexpected revelation.

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