A few miles outside a small British Columbia town, a school bus veers off the road, crashes through a guardrail, slides down an embankment, skids on the ice of a frozen sandpit and then sinks--all in about the time it takes the widowed father of two of the schoolchildren, who's following the bus in his pickup truck, to register surprise. That scene comes about halfway through Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, and it's a killer. Like most cataclysmic events, it seems to be happening in both slow-motion and fast; it's over before it's hardly begun. And then? Then, the aftermath. In the novel that The Sweet Hereafter is based on, Russell Banks put the "math" back in "aftermath"--dividing up the guilt and innocence, good fortune and bad. With 14 children dead, there was plenty of guilt to go around. Dolores Driscoll, who was driving the bus, may or may not have been going too fast. The guardrail may have been defective. The sandpit was supposed to have been drained. But, though one of its main characters is a big-city lawyer who descends upon the town like some kind of avenging angel, The Sweet Hereafter isn't ultimately about guilt and innocence. It's about forgiveness, acceptance and death as a part of life. And it's about how we can lose our kids, whether or not we're paying enough attention to them. The tragedy puts a horrible rip in the fabric of this isolated community, but Banks and Egoyan let us know that there were already some sizable rips in that fabric--adultery, incest. Was the accident God's vengeance or just a freakish confluence of the wrong place and the wrong time? That's where lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) comes in. To the town's bereft citizens, Stephens offers the balm of blame--that and potentially huge cash settlements. "Let me represent your anger," he tells one of them. Stephens knows how to play the blame game, and yet he can't help but blame himself for allowing his own daughter, a drug addict, to slip away. Of course, everybody slips away in The Sweet Hereafter, and that makes the movie difficult to sit through. (It's a lot like attending a funeral.) But Banks and Egoyan aren't just wallowing in grief, they're trying to understand it. Egoyan, whose previous films (even that hothouse flower Erotica) were like hermetically sealed Skinner boxes, has joined the real world this time around; sadly, he's joined the real world when it's having one hell of a bad day.
In the novel, Banks employs four narrators, whose stories line up like testimony at a trial. Egoyan has taken those stories and broken them into dozens of shards that scramble our sense of the past, present and future. Only the accident seems real, alive; the rest of the movie swirls around it, like a vulture. Those who are used to more conventional movies may be turned off by The Sweet Hereafter's morbid tone. The director wants to comfort us, but he wants us to suffer first. So he places us in a kind of limbo--waiting, as Banks wrote about those who were left behind, "to be moved to wherever the other dead ones have gone."