The lawyer (Ian Holm) trapped in the car wash isn’t an ambulance chaser. He’s a personal injury attorney who specializes in class action suits, and he’s very good at what he does, but he doesn’t exploit grieving people for their money. What he really wants from his clients is their rage. He wants their right to be righteous in anger for what was done to them, and to discover and punish those who are to blame. Because (as is the way of these things) the lawyer has been injured himself. But there is no one to blame, not even himself. The lesson of the universe he inhabits is that tragedy is as inexorable as life, and as irresistible.
In Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter Mitchell Stephens esq. comes to the town of Sam Dent on a self appointed mission. He will find out who was responsible for the bus crash that killed the children of the town. He will make them pay. He will find a measure of relief in his victory. Unfortunately for the crusading attorney, he’s not in a Grisham novel, and the short courtroom scene we do get is perfect in its unexpected outcome. Mitchell tells the townspeople that he will represent their rage, not their grief. The film thwarts him again in this endeavor (although Mitchell is not the main character, he is the audience’s avatar, which is why he’s so constantly led away from his goal). Egoyan’s third feature is a starkly beautiful, accessible meditation on grief. It’s never so obviously painful as a punch to the gut; more the unease that comes from staring unblinkingly into the sun as the camera unfailingly seeks the truth out in small moments and lingers on uncomforatable reality.
The film’s pitiless perfection begins with the credits. They roll over a scene of such complete universal love and hope that the terrible anguish suffusing the rest of the film will stand in opposition to this one image: a mother, a father, and a small child lie asleep in the same bed, the parents facing each other with the child in between. We’ll learn the end of this particular story later. From there the film moves into the story of the damaged community, moving freely though time, (time and place may not be identified but we are never emotionally lost) always circling around the accident. The specter of the crash is always there, waiting, so that we read importance into scenes taking place earlier, watching children’s encounters with their parents. We think, as the survivors could not ‘is this the last time they see each other?’ The film draws us completely into the living torment of the town, which is so traumatized by the past, so apathetic to the future (how could it mean anything when their future is literally dead) that they live always in the present.
There are smaller greifs and transgressions within the unspeakable one. The film uncovers a few as it explores the wreckage. There’s Billy (Bruce Greenwood) who lost his wife to cancer several years before and used to follow the school bus to wave to his children. He saw everything, but could do nothing. Nicole (Sarah Polley) used to baby sit for Billy’s children. Besides the bus driver, she’s the only one who survived that day, but she lost use of her legs. Nicole is to be Micthell’s star witness at the trial, but an unusual insight into the town and a private struggle of her own cause her to make a pragmatic change in her testimony, sacrificing and saving all at once. Her choice may allow the town a chance to heal at the cost of a lie. Polley’s decision making process is almost totally hidden and silent. It’s never spelled out in dialogue or broadcast on her serene face, yet somehow we’re not surprised when she acts as she does. It’s a magnificently subtle performance. As Mitchell tells her: “you’d make a great poker player kid.”
Mitchell isn’t mad at her for her merciful lie, perhaps the exposure to so many people with lost children has put him in mind of his own disappeared daughter, who last called him for money in the car wash. He doesn’t quiet know how she’s grown into such a stranger, as he tells a woman on a plane in the best scene of the film. To think he once held her very life in his hands