Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (Fine Line) puts you in a rapturous emotional daze. Egoyan, an Armenian Canadian, began his career making kinky avant-gardish doodles (The Adjuster, Speaking Parts) and then, in 1995, broke through with Exotica, a coldly arresting mosaic of murder, mourning, and forbidden desire. It was the work of an ingenious, brainiac craftsman still dancing around the edges of his subject. Now, adapting a novel by Russell Banks, Egoyan fills in the void of his earlier work and, at the same time, brings his puzzle-structure trickery to spellbinding new levels of artistry. The Sweet Hereafter, like Breaking the Waves or Natural Born Killers, is a new kind of mystical fairy tale, one that seeks to uncover the forces holding the world together, even as they tear it apart.
Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), a lonely attorney, journeys to a small town in the snowy wilds of British Columbia. The townspeople have suffered a cataclysmic tragedy, and he has come to try to represent them legally in their grief. Egoyan, gliding between past and present, teases our curiosity, revealing the details of the disaster only gradually. By the time we witness, in a memorably chilling image, what actually happened — a school bus full of children perishes in a road accident — the event feels part of something larger, a disturbance in the universe.
The Sweet Hereafter is a hymn to the agony of loss, yet it is also saturated with the radiance of parental love. The characters we see here cherish their children. Holm’s lawyer has lost his own daughter, a drug addict who spiraled into the gutter and now phones him only for money, and he interviews his fellow sufferers with a fascinating mixture of motives: He’s part ambulance chaser, part empathetic guru. Holm gives a great, searing, implosive performance. The townspeople, as well, are characterized with beautiful intimacy, from the guilt-choked bus driver to the serenely raging hippie couple whose adopted son died in the accident to the town’s most ambiguous residents, a delicate teenager (Sarah Polley) and her adoring father (Tom McCamus), who love each other and, as we learn, are also in love with each other.
The link between their incestuous relationship and the bus accident is the elusive mystery of The Sweet Hereafter. Egoyan has a Lynchian vision of innocence bound with evil. It’s embodied in his brilliant use of ”The Pied Piper of Hamelin” as a siren song of erotic dread. This is a movie in which darkness emanates from within and without — from the choices made by a seductive parent, from the random threat of a nest of baby spiders, which, in a flashback of luminous terror, transform Holm’s infant daughter into a fear-drenched junkie-to-be. The film, which begins in devastation and ends in grace, is about the birth of a new world, in which parents and children can love each other helplessly without, perhaps, ever feeling that they’re fully connected. The Sweet Hereafter leaves you shaken and ecstatic at the same time, transported by the vision of a major film artist. A