The Sweet Hereafter

11 Mar 1998

Paul R. Potts

This film is a confusing one, but a fascinating one as well.

On the one hand, it seems designed to give the appearance of extreme depth. It must be the kind of film that you should be watching and talking about; after all, if everyone else is talking about it, it must be deep. I’m automatically distrustful of this in the same way that I tend not to believe that the most popular is also the best.

On the other hand, it isn’t just appearance: the film does play with big ideas, is quite moving, and does bring forth truly beautiful performances.

If you like your narrative linear, this film will drive you crazy. You can’t watch it while constantly asking yourself “What is happening now? Is this the future or the past? Exactly whom are these characters and what are they doing?” You do need to keep track of who everyone is and what they are doing, but you don’t need to try to analyze it all and put it in order too early. Time moves back and forth in waves. Let it flow over you and you will begin to perceive the whole story.

The plot emerges eliptically, like the unfolding of a mystery story, through a slow accumulation of details. A school bus full of children has plunged through an icy lake, killing almost all the children of a small town. This scene has been toyed with so gracefully that by the time it happens, there is no drama in it at all, just a fascinating silence that settles over the scene and a real gut-wrenching sympathy with one isolated father, forced to stare in horror as his children die.

There’s a big-city lawyer, on the trail of money, who seems both a perfectly hypocritical ambulance-chaser believing in nothing but money, while perfectly acting out the role of vengeful messiah, trying to establish someone to blame, and a desperately loving father driven to the breaking point by his money-wheedling, drug-addicted daughter.

There’s the fable of the Pied Piper of Hamlin woven in, with clear metaphorical echoes across past and future events.

There’s a survivor, a girl now wheelchair-bound, forced to abandon the few illusions she has remaining, and who learns how to go head-to- head in the lawyer’s game of manipulation and deceit. There’s her incestuous relationship with her father. We get to be bothered by this precisely because the film isn’t; there are no clear consequences or lessons to be learned from this. We must get out of it what we bring to it.

There’s the grief-wracked bus driver, whose fate seems to be that she must live with the overwhelming horror that she might have prevented the accident. A less interesting movie would have presented us with some kind of evidence of her guilt or innocence, but we’re forced to suffer along with her and realize that our lives are about perception, not facts.

One of the film’s big messages seems to be about the nature of time itself, and our perception of time. The lawyer describes a terrifying event in the life of his daughter as a very young child. He must race to the hospital with his daughter on his lap, a knife to her throat, poised to perform an emergency tracheotomy, as she stares up at him.

Seen in a linear narrative, this event would evoke one set of associations — about parental love, duty, responsibility, and fear. Re-imagined in retrospect, knowing the daughter’s life and the lawyer’s anguish, it evokes a drastically altered set, all about dominance and anger, retribution, and the threat and terror of death. Because of this creative rearrangement of time, everything is seen in a new light, and we come to understand better the lawyer’s character and motivations.

Not one of the characters is cardboard; all are richly imagined and convincingly written. Not one of the scenes is a throwaway. The film has an odd power; the sluggish drift of time pulls you through it, and you’re left a bit baffled by its unconventionality. Not all that much happens over the course of the film. People’s lives continue, and they make small realizations and try to keep going after what will no doubt be the largest tragedy of their lives. Real life doesn’t generally hold majestic speeches, car chases, shoot-outs. But the oddly-moving (and oddly moving) portrayal of this makes this film stick in the mind like few others I’ve seen.

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