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The Sweet Hereafter

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The defense, it seems, has rested. With Communism a nonstarter, about the only acceptable movie villains today

The defense, it seems, has rested. With Communism a nonstarter, about the only acceptable movie villains today are viscera-spewing aliens, impending comets, hyperthyroid lizards — and attorneys. Oh, and Gary Oldman. Lawyers are used only if Oldman’s not free and a human is called for (even that’s arguable; Al Pacino was Satan in The Devil’s Advocate, after all).

And yet, an older archetype lives on, primarily in the novels of John Grisham and the sprawling films made from them. Descended from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Good Lawyer now looks a lot like young, clear-eyed Matt Damon in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker, walking through a cynical moral landscape but still able to find his ideals for the summation. At the same time, Atom Egoyan’s lauded art-house drama The Sweet Hereafter has as its central character an aging ambulance chaser, played by Ian Holm, who’s anything but a mustache-twirling sleaze. If putting these two films together is an apples-to-eggplant exercise, it still makes for interesting arguments.

One is that the classic pieties of Good Lawyer movies don’t cut it anymore, at least when as lifelessly presented as in The Rainmaker. Damon plays Rudy Baylor, a freshly minted Memphis attorney with blue-collar roots who gets to shine when he tackles an insurance company on behalf of a client dying from leukemia (Johnny Whitworth); at the same time, his knightly instincts mix with personal demons when he falls for a young abused wife (Claire Danes, all bandaged up with no place to go).

Nice intentions; sadly, there isn’t a moment in Rainmaker that isn’t made of pure Hollywood plastic. The Grisham novel is anchored by Rudy’s biting narration; Damon, by contrast, is a hunky cipher to whom things just happen. As soon as you see the fat cat opposing counsel, played by Jon Voight in slitty-eyed hambone mode, any suspense as to who will win the courtroom showdown becomes moot. Worse, Rainmaker holds the audience in contempt, spelling out plot points with loony obviousness since readers of mass-market paperbacks apparently need all the help they can get. That this lumbering white elephant comes from the director of The Godfather is most painful of all. In Peter Biskind’s new book on ’70s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Margot Kidder recalls that meeting Coppola in the late ’60s was ”as close to God as one could get.” Rainmaker makes as good a case as any that God is dead.

Fortunately, Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter indicates that good filmmaking is still alive. Previous films from this Canadian director (Exotica, The Adjuster) play like cryptic crosswords with characters in place of clues (and that’s from someone who likes them). Adapting Russell Banks’ mournful novel about the aftermath of a fatal school bus crash, however, Egoyan (who picked up an Oscar nomination for his script) turns in a deeply humane film about family and loss without giving up his connect-the-dots style.

At the heart of this wrenching tale is Mitchell Stephens (Holm), the sad-eyed city lawyer who comes to the small northern town to help the bereaved parents ”direct their rage.” Some are all too willing to sue whomever has the deepest pockets. Others recognize that there is little to be done in the face of a callous God, indifferent fate, or random road conditions.

Egoyan, Banks, and Hereafter are clearly on the side of the non-litigious, but they resist demonizing their anti-hero. Stephens’ inability to see that people might not want revenge — that mourning and living might, on occasion, be enough — is a punishment in itself, especially since it’s possibly both symptom and cause of his failed relationship with his drug-addict daughter (played by the novelist’s own daughter, Caerthan Banks).

Perhaps the most piercing moment comes as Stephens tells an anecdote of when his child was a baby and stung by black widows; rushing to the hospital, he had to be ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if she stopped breathing. Egoyan shows us the placid toddler’s face, the knife hovering by her throat; the father tells us flatly in voice-over that he was ”prepared to go all the way.”

It may be the truest, most forgiving, and most damning, lawyer story yet put on film. And it makes The Rainmaker look like a shyster. A

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