There's an intricately detailed painting by Bruegel called "Children's Games," so dense with varieties of public experience that the scholar and translator Edward Snow has written an entire book deciphering its deceptive surfaces ("Inside Bruegel," North Point Press). He approvingly quotes Nietzsche on the concept of "slow reading": "to read well, that is, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and after, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers."
Atom Egoyan's ferociously sorrowful "The Sweet Hereafter," based on Russell Banks' novel, rewards that sort of contemplation, too, as it evokes a small Canadian mountain town in the winter calm of the weeks after fourteen children have died in a school-bus crash. Ian Holm is a city lawyer who comes to the town, trying to lure the survivors into a class-action suit that would allow the mourning parents to attempt to sate their immense loss with the small solace of cash. Instead, he finds himself caught in a hum of what is already lost, of unspeakable fluster, embarrassing grief. (His own daughter is caught in a nightmare of potential sudden death that consumes him as well.)
Egoyan's past works have sometimes been regarded as games-playing, mechanistic and hermetic, closed worlds populated by neurotic outsiders seeking perverse substitutes for the comforts of family and home. "The Sweet Hereafter" is something fresh, about family and loss, mournful and riven with undercurrents of simmering rage. The film's moments of anguish are all the more powerful for Egoyan's magisterial restraint, thrillingly precise yet seemingly seen through the exacting, unjudging eye of a mute God. I ask the 37-year-old Egoyan if this movement to foreground emotions could be reduced to the banality of his becoming a father. "Yeah, I do think so," he says softly. But he sees recent opportunities to make short films and art installations as an equal liberation. "I'm not trying to cram everything into the one form. I still don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but doing side projects that are more exploratory will affect my feature filmmaking."
He also found adaptation to be a kind of relief. "Novels offer the chance for a really extraordinary collaboration. A novelist is concerned with detail and giving a sense of urgency to the everyday. That was never and will never be my strong point. I become very impatient. I'm concerned as a writer with the things that people do in broader strokes, the rituals that make up their lives, the professions that they consume themselves with, but not necessarily who they are. Russell's work [offers] amazing portraits of people. So why not take one person's strength and combine that with your own strategic concerns? 'Sweet Hereafter' is, structurally, definitely the most ambitious thing that I've done. But people are prepared to go along with it because they can imagine themselves in that situation. They can imagine what they'd be feeling if they were there. That makes them invest more, ultimately. And that means you can actually go further."
To shattering effect, Egoyan does just that, parceling out what we already know, moving fluidly back and forth across months of screen time. There is a scene of brute simplicity where a husband and wife, small against mountains of white and sky so clear, bundle their beloved adopted son off to the bus, to the foreordained disaster. It is an act of simplest love, of instinctual concern, of unwitting farewell. Then there is a later shot, when the bus is lost, the most sophisticated moment of Egoyan's canvas, a depopulated Bruegel winterscape that is purest horror, yet pushes the screams of children into distance, to a deeper agony within memory -- that of the survivors, ours. Yet that parental good-bye along a slushed road in a high winter heaven is so simple and perfect, that Egoyan's work seems finally ready to move out of art houses and into the hearts and malls of the world.
Egoyan is concerned how the film will be perceived through word-of-mouth. "If people think 'Sweet Hereafter' is [only] a film about dead kids," he says, "it becomes this major obstacle to them wanting to see this film. It's something that never even occurred to me as I was making it. But there's such a division between the spirit that you have going into making a film and what you now have to contend with, which is the competitiveness of the marketplace."
Perhaps it's best those concerns never entered his mind, or he would not have spun the story in such a haunting form. "It's interesting talking about this phenomenon of trying to make sense of things when you know the end of narrative," he says. "Especially when the end of that narrative is death. We cannot believe that death is simple. We invest too much into it. So we have to have conspiracy theories. We say, there are all sorts of reasons why it has to happen. The simple fact of it is unbearable. We cannot let ourselves believe that it's as plain as that. The more elaborate you make an investigation, the more you invest into the intricacy, the more you're trying to deny the simple fact of death. The narrative is over. That's Holm's speech to one of the families, 'Actions don't just happen.' There's no such thing as an accident. He's spinning out a conspiracy theory, right? To me, the most interesting part of the film is that it becomes a reconstructed narrative, where [a character's testimony at the end] shuts the door on all that speculation." That testimony may or may not be true. The character's motivations are complex and layered, but the response is framed as a simple assertion, as strong and final as death itself. Yet "The Sweet Hereafter"'s audacious warping of time, far more rewarding than a similar playfulness in "Pulp Fiction," suggests that answers never come, only healing, which we can refuse or embrace.