I saw The Sweet Hereafter when it was released in 1997, and at the time I thought it was incredible. I’d actually read the book before I’d seen the movie (fond memories of reading reviews of both in my college subscription to Entertainment Weekly are flooding back); it’s one of the few movies I think improves on an already good book – and the book’s author agrees. (I would normally provide a link, but unfortunately this is only on Wikipedia and IMDB’s trivia page . . . but I do remember it from said Entertainment Weekly article.) I’ve wanted to revisit some old favorites for while and see if my taste was really worthwhile when I was 20, and this is the first.
It actually holds up pretty well. Ian Holm’s performance is masterful. The part that resonates most clearly with me his completely non-verbal way of communicating how little he gives a shit about what he’s doing or the conversation he’s having; it perfectly captures how I act when I’m just doing something tedious or stressful and just want to survive it rather than get anything out of it. And his monologue about his daughter killed me in 1997 and kills me even more now that I have a daughter of my own. And the movie can still surprise me, as it wasn’t until this third viewing (I saw it twice – in the theater (!) – in 1997) that I realized his daughter had died at the end.
I also still appreciated the structure. While telling stories out of chronological order feels a little trendy in a late-90s sort of way, it’s still effective. Roger Ebert wrote at the time that it’s fitting that the movie neither begins nor ends with the bus crash which dominates its characters. It actually happens almost exactly at the midpoint of the film – 46 minutes into a 93 minute movie. (After reading an interesting but truly bizarre article about the “ring narrative” of the six Star Wars films, I wondered what other clues the structure gave – something for another viewing.) But it’s not as if the first half is “before” and the second half is “after” – the film cuts back and forth between before the crash, the crash, after the crash, and well after the crash. I appreciate that this is never done obviously or heavy-handedly, with no “two years earlier” subtitles. It’s up to the viewer to figure out when scenes are happening and mentally put them in order.
Not everything was as successful as I remembered. The incest plotline felt lurid when I first saw it, and it still does today. But I like the added depth that writer/director Atom Egoyan brings to the plot: in the book, Nicole lies about the accident in order to deny her father the settlement money out of revenge for what he did to her, but in the movie she’s also acting as the town’s conscience and trying to save Billy, the one resident who wants to remember how good things were rather than cash in on his present misery. I just wish the incest motivation could have been dropped altogether. Likewise for some of the more forced elements, such as the multiple “daddies” in the various abused and neglected daughters’ dialogue, and Ian Holm’s clumsy attempt to sum up that “all our children are lost . . . shooting each other in the streets . . . wandering comatose through shopping malls . . .” In a film with so much subtlety, it just feels obvious.
I’m torn, however, on the addition of the Pied Piper to the film, a detail not present in the original book. I think conceptually it works well, as it deepens the themes of guilt, punishment, and loss elsewhere. But, especially when re-recited at the end, it feels a bit too on the nose. Perhaps once was enough.
On the whole, I’m not embarrassed that the 20-year-old me liked The Sweet Hereafter as much as I did. Others on my list (which included “the 24 best movies ever made . . . and then seen by me,” a joke that still makes me laugh), like Forrest Gump, I’m less sure of.