The Sweet Hereafter
Atom Egoyan and Russell Banks, 1997
A lawyer comes to a small town in the mountains of British Columbia
following a school bus accident that has killed most of the children
in the community.
I first saw this movie in Brea, California, on April 5, 1998. I was
sufficiently impressed that on April 6, 1998, I saw it again. That day
I decided to stop development on Varicella. "I want to write a
game I can hear Sarah Polley reading," I wrote at the time. Later that
year I released Photopia. Little did I know at the time that
pretty much everything I did in 2007 outside of my tutoring gig would
flow from this chain of events, including rewatching The Sweet
Hereafter in order to analyze the mechanics of how the preexisting
story was translated onto the screen.
Lesson one: when you're mentally translating every look and gesture you
see into screenplay language, everyone appears to be overacting. As a
lay viewer, I'd loved this movie; this time around, as I reverse-engineered
the instructions — "Look shocked!" "Look uncomfortable!" — I
found myself pining for some subtlety. (Sarah Polley was the exception.)
Lesson two: when you're cataloguing the lines and actions given to each
character, you find that there aren't actually a whole hell of a lot of
them, especially in an ensemble piece like this. This makes the characters
seem much flatter than they do when you're watching as a lay viewer,
supplying your own depth along the way. Lesson three: don't watch movies
On the flip side, while watching this movie in analytical mode ruined
some aspects of it, I found that this time around I was much better able
to articulate to myself what I had seen once the movie was over. Maybe
it was because of the way I was watching it, or because I'm older and
wiser (?) now than I was the last time I saw it, or because for the past
year I've been working with someone who writes in a much more strategical
manner than I do. I am not used to thinking, "Okay, I want to get across
such and such a theme, so I should introduce a character who represents
such and so, and then raise the emotional stakes for the audience by
having her do this and that..." I have tended to work in a much more
intuitive manner: I just kind of dwell on the story until I know what it
is. When I'm done, the editing phase consists of looking things over,
picking out the places that don't feel like the real story, and replacing
them with what must actually have happened. And the first few times I
watched The Sweet Hereafter, back in the 1990s, I did so fully in
this intuitive mode — not analyzing the characters' roles, but
just reacting to them and what they did as if they were, y'know, people.
Not this time.
Take Sarah Polley's character, Nicole Burnell. In my initial viewings,
I didn't try to interpret her — I just fell in love with
her. She's not an outcast, but she's not horsing around with the other
teenagers; she's not motherly, but she's a beloved source of support to
the younger kids; she's not a leader, but every time she rides the school
bus she sits in the front. She sits in the front, looks out the window,
and thinks. And on the soundtrack? I found an early draft of the
screenplay in which she does a lot of voiceover work. In the released
film, almost all of that has been cut. Instead— she sings.
Like an angel. The Sweet Hereafter became my favorite
movie because as the movie unfolded, all of the tragedy and triumph
therein was amplified by the fact that it was happening to someone I
deeply cared for.
But this time I could see the work that Egoyan was doing in turning the
Nichole of the novel into the much stronger character of Nicole in the
movie. In both versions of the story, she's being sexually exploited
by her father. Nichole is furious and sick about this from the get-go.
Nicole, by contrast, is initially a willing participant, only to turn
on her father after the accident. Previously, I had seen this change
of heart as just part of the randomness and inexplicability of life;
now it seemed incredibly obvious that it was a necessary element of
Egoyan's thematic schema. You can imagine a timeline labeled NICOLE
with a vertical line through it marked ACCIDENT. Before the accident,
she is a child, and goes along with her father because she is
subservient. Before the accident, she is an innocent, and sees their
moments in the hayloft as romantic. But then the bus plunges off the
cliff and Nicole is introduced to the horrors of the world. No longer
innocent, she can see what has been happening to her for what it is:
not an affair, but incestuous molestation. And no longer a child,
she can fight back with intelligence and guile. Nicole is a portrait
of innocence lost but virtue retained. The movie accepts that she
has to become a calculating adult in order to become an effective
force for good, and at the same time appreciates that the loss of the
sweet kid she was before is something to mourn. That's quite something!
What an interesting and ambitious locus of themes!
And yet I liked her better when she was a person.
Example #2: Alison, the young woman whom the lawyer, Mitchell Stephens,
meets on the plane. Here's the setup: Stephens came to town and rounded
up as many bereaved parents as he could to join a suit against, well,
against anyone he could think of — the bus company, the guardrail
builders, the city, you name it. He wouldn't accept that no one was to
blame for the deaths of these children, that it was just an accident, a
patch of ice in the wrong place. Someone had to be to blame,
someone he could sue. Why? Money was certainly a part of it, but mainly
it was a way of dealing with his demons. His own daughter, Zoe, is a drug
addict who has spent the past few years calling him from faraway cities
demanding money. Whose fault is that? Hers, his, society's, everyone's,
no one's. But the idea that there's no simple explanation for anything
important is something he can't handle.
Now Stephens is on a plane, and through sheer coincidence he finds himself
seated next to one of Zoe's childhood friends. Alison serves as his
sounding board as he narrates the most harrowing sequence in the film, one
that has nothing to do with the bus crash: the time that Zoe, as a toddler,
was bitten by spiders and had to be taken to the hospital while Stephens
held a knife next to her throat anticipating that she would soon stop
breathing and that he would have to give her an emergency tracheotomy.
The story is a microcosm of the entire movie — both are about the
problem of children. Losing Zoe is a terrifying prospect, the most
excruciating thing imaginable... and yet, four years earlier life without
Zoe wasn't so very bad. ("Why do we fear the eternity of oblivion after
we die, but not the eternity of oblivion before we are born?") Why do we
bring these creatures into the world that we then can't bear to lose —
especially considering that, one way or another, we lose them anyway?
That's the irony of the spider story, after all: the Stephenses make it
to the hospital in time and Zoe is saved... only, ultimately, she isn't,
because the future of that little girl on Mitchell's knee is to wail at
him from a phone booth because he won't wire her any more drug money.
Now, just as I had a sense of Nicole's character before I was able to
diagram it, I had a sense that having someone like Alison be the one
listening to Stephens made for a richer scenario than if it were Phil
from Bala, Ontario. But this time around her purpose in the film seemed
completely obvious: she serves as an avatar of who Zoe would be in an
ideal world. When Stephens steps off the plane he sees a young father
laughing with his toddler daughter, and then Alison stops him to say
goodbye — Alison, this bright 30-year-old woman, old enough and
together enough to treat as an equal. The cut from the girl to the woman
is a narrative, the narrative of why people have children, the narrative
that Zoe's addiction has stolen from him.
Apparently it's also a standard formula. Bah. Lesson four: reread
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