WARNING: Spoilers ahead. If you have any interest in watching this, don’t read on.
In one of the climactic scenes of The Sweet Hereafter, a teenage girl, dressed only in a thin sweater over her dress, gets out of a car. It’s a cold night. She drapes a blanket around her like the classic childhood storybook character Little Red Riding Hood, the bright red standing out against the darkness, making her look more childlike than ever. A passage of The Pied Piper narrates the scene:
There was a rustling, that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling and pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping, and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.
When, lo! as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say, all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say, —
“It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can’t forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me;
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new”.
She follows her father into a barn, a new place, full of promises and secrecy. Inside, as we hear this classic story from many a childhood being read by the girl, her father does the unthinkable and unforgivable, corrupting her and making her no longer a child that is being protected, but instead a custodian of the first of many secrets, things that make her responsible for the future of the whole town.
A few days later, another father is fulfilling his duty to care for his children – he drives behind their school bus on the way to work, as he does every day, waving to them. The magic of childhood is still firmly in place. Then, as he watches and waves, we see his face fall as he witnesses the unthinkable. He fails in his duty, and it’s beyond his control, entirely different to the scene which played out just before in the timeline.
The Sweet Hereafter is the story of two things in the wake of two tragedies – a British Columbia town, and a lawyer, who is also a father. Like any place, the townspeople all have their fair share of secrets that bubble just below the surface, covered by a thin veil of quasi-openness, like everyone knows everything about everyone when, in fact, they don’t. When a tragic bus crash occurs, killing 14 of the 22 children on board, a lawyer arrives in the town, intending to help those affected win a suit that will result in substantial compensation and a hefty payday for him. But, like the townspeople, whose secrets have come to the surface in the wake of unimaginable pain, he has his fair share of problems that affect his obligation to the truth and his motivations for taking the job, turning up unsolicited. Is he doing it for the money, or because he feels their pain and need to protect their children, as if trying to be atoned for his wrongdoings as a parent?
Hereafter is two artists at the top of their game – director Atom Egoyan and star Sarah Polley. When it was released in the late 1990s, garnering Egoyan Best Director and Adapted Screenplay nominations, it was called the best film of the decade by some. It’s easy to see why it was heaped with this title – expertly crafted and measured, it’s a finely woven tapestry of narratives that still offer substantial food for thought analysis even now, 17 years later; composed of fractured scenes that never become confusing or alienating, but serve to draw the viewer further in through curiosity. This is because, despite the fact there’s long speeches, see the moment of the accident and have all the necessary visual exposition, there’s a sense that we’re never given the whole truth, that Egoyan is as incomplete about the truth as the characters, and there’s many ambiguous, unstated emotions and motivations.
Hereafter is a tale of the most simple of obligations, that of fathers to daughters, parents to children. Nearly every character is either a parent on child, either the carer or the person being cared for. It’s a parental horror film, of failing in your duty, and Egoyan takes it to the next level, utilising hallmark symbols of charmed, perfect childhoods – old storybooks, light, airy compositions in both sound (lutes and recorders feature heavily in the score) and picture – to create a sense of eerie, ghostly discontent.
The most fascinating character in the film is that of 15 year old Nicole, played by a 17 year old Sarah Polley. Taking a few years off after rising to fame on Road to Avonlea due to not wanting to act anymore, Polley was asked by Egoyan himself to star in the film, and it’s easy to see why she would have been interested in the character. Starkly more mature and different to anything she’d ever done before, Polley herself has said that Hereafter launched the second chapter of her acting career. Like her directorial and screenwriting work, Polley commands the screen like someone double her age with a fascinating maturity that is muted, and never precocious, innocence and keen observation in one fell swoop.
Nicole is an innocent and childlike, yet almost maternal character. Once a custodian for the younger children of the town, babysitting them and sitting at the front of the bus, she’s a protector, and blames herself for the accident. She feels like the lame child in the Pied Piper by having survived the accident, being too slow, so the door closed, leaving her in the now childless, dull town. She’s in a unique position to the rest of the characters – she’s both a guardian and the guarded. She now, in addition to her anger about the secret between her and her father, is saddled with responsibility – the success of the narrative created by the lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) in the lawsuit, which her father is aiming to get a lot of money from, weighs entirely on her. She has control over the town. She knows that the town is looking for someone to blame, but will never blame a fellow townsperson, so if her story doesn’t line up with the narrative, the suit will be dropped.
Nicole has motivations of her own that prevent her from being completely impartial to the truth – revenge. But she realises something that no one else does – no one is to blame. They all, including her, all feel responsible to some degree, but she knows, ultimately, that no one is to blame, there’s no single, controllable action to lead to the accident. Mitchell feels otherwise, desperately wanting to find a reason for what happened, to pin it on someone and try alleviate the townspeople’s suffering, his own guilt at his own life affecting how partial he is to pursuing the truth.
The Sweet Hereafter, a starkly unsentimental (almost too cold and internalised for some), haunting and fractured film, represents a panic just not within the narrative, but for the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At one point in the film, Mitchell states:
Something terrible has happened that has taken our children away.
Here, he articulates a common panic found in many today parents and otherwise – how did we get here? How did we get to this point where horrible events have happened, where children die on the way to school, and loved ones die of illnesses? Is it something we did? Egoyan’s core message is that there’s no easy answers, that there’s no single person to blame for society’s shortcomings and tragedies. Is it fate? Is it compounding actions? Like Nicole’s testimony that haunts the closing minutes, culminating in an ambiguous final frame, we’ll never know.